… At 90, still making movies – F. M. Winship, 1986

Lillian Gish at 90, still making movies

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP, UPI Senior Editor

DEC. 14, 1986

NEW YORK — Lillian Gish has just made her 105th motion picture and she is looking forward to her 106th.

‘I’ve been working for 84 years. I don’t intend to stop now,’ says Gish, ethereal and almost prim in a pearl-buttoned rose Ultrasuede dress as she serves tea in the Manhattan apartment where she has lived alone for decades. She admits to 90 years, although two early theater reference books give her birthdate as 1893.

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She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.

‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence.

She still exudes a sweet femininity. She wears Mary Jane strapped shoes. Her hair, ash blond turned mostly white, is pulled into a loose crown, a style seen in photographs of her in the ’20s.

(Original Caption) Former actress Lillian Gish in her New York apartment.
Lillian Gish in her New York apartment.

‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’

She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis.

Gish’s new picture, due for release late next year, is a wry comedy with the working title ‘The Whales of August.’ It was filmed this fall on a small island in Casco Bay, Maine. Gish and Davis co-star as widowed sisters who have lived together for 30 years and are facing an emotional crisis.

Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)
Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)

‘We had only met briefly in the past and we had never worked together,’ said Gish. ‘In spite of this, I think we got along very nicely.’ Gish, of course, is very much Davis’s senior in the film world and can afford to be generous. —

Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford.

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Griffith, head of Biograph Films, paid her $50 a week and became the lodestar of her actress life.

There is a lingering legend that the relationship with Griffith, who died in obscurity in 1948, was far more than that of master filmmaker to star. Gish steadfastly maintains it did not go beyond close friend and mentor, and she has spent the decades since his death in a successful effort to restore his reputation as ‘Father of Film.’

She even titled her 1969 autobiography ‘The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.’

Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack

From a book-laden coffee table, she produces a copy of the autobiography translated into Burmese, one of the dozen languages in which it was published. There is also a watercolor sketch sent by a fan that incorporates the U.S. postage stamp portraying Griffith. The stamp represents five years of campaigning by Gish.

‘Griffith was a man of warmth and good spirits,’ she said. ‘But there was an air about him that forebade intimacy. In all the years I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith, and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish, until about 1939 when we went on a first-name basis.’

Lillian Gish in the 80's

Miss Lillian’s eyes are still large in a small, plump, pensive face that could express supplication in a way that became a trademark. Griffith recorded his impression of Gish on their first meeting as that of ‘exquisite, ethereal beauty.’

Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen.

Her 104th film was ‘Sweet Liberty,’ an Alan Alda comedy about the making of a movie that takes liberties with the American Revolution. It was less than a box-office smash.

sweet liberty, from left writer-director-actor alan alda, lillian gish, on set, 1986 universal detail

Gish played Alda’s cantankerous but lovably dotty old mother.

‘I thought they had mistaken me for my sister, Dorothy, who could be a very funny, whereas they always said I was about as funny as a baby’s open grave,’ she says, pouring tea into pink-and-white English china.

‘So I said ‘no’ four or five times, and then they sent Alan Alda to see me. Well, that did it.’ she says, lifting both hands in enthusiasm. The legendary, sweet Gish smile lights a face that is still girlish and without wrinkles.

She is delighted to have added Alda to her list of leading men — a list that started with Walter Huston, father of John and grandfather of Anjelica.

Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress.

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Then came Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, Roland Young, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Fred MacMurray, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert Preston and George C. Scott.

Proximity to such male glamor was not lost on her.

She says brightly, ‘Did you know that it was because of me that they changed the laws of New York so that a woman cannot be sued for breach of promise?’

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

Charges were brought against her by onetime manager and financial adviser Charles Duell, who wanted to marry her when she left Griffith in 1923 to star in ‘The White Sister’ for Inspiration-Metro Pictures.

Griffith could no longer afford the $1,000 a week that Gish could command, and Inspiration could. It was the first time she had ever earned a lot of money making films.

‘When Duell found out how much money I could make, he decided to marry me,’ she said, her voice echoing old indignation. ‘He wanted my share of the profits from ‘The White Sister.’ I had to get legal help, and he tried to ruin me in the press.

‘I was smuggled on board a train going to California to avoid papers he tried to serve on me. It was terrible, out of an old melodrama.’

She still likes to recall that she received a ‘most discreet proposal of marriage’ from John Gilbert, Hollywood’s ‘Great Lover,’ when he played Roldolphe to her Mimi in the silent version of ‘La Boheme.’

‘I fell in love for the first time at 9,’ she says ‘I was always in and out of love. More men wanted to marry me. But marriage is a 24 hour-a-day job and I have always been much too busy to be a good wife. My films are my children.’

She was also reluctant to part with her sister Dorothy and their mother. Theater critic George Jean Nathan, a longtime escort, proposed to her numerous times in the 1920s before marrying another actress, Julie Haydon. Gish still believes Nathan resented her family closeness.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

‘I never met anyone I liked better than mother or sister,’ she said. ‘I was really never happy away from them. I certainly wasn’t going to marry anyone who would take me away from my mother if I could help it.’ —

Mother, born Mary Robinson McConnell, was estranged from Gish’s father, James Leigh Gish, when Lillian and Dorothy were small. He was an Ohio confectioner, ever on the move to find ‘fresher horizons,’ as Gish puts it. Finally, Mary Gish moved herself and her children to New York where she found work as an ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company for $15 a week.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

‘I grew up with love, not money,’ said Gish. ‘Mother gave us security. Father insecurity. As I grew older, I wondered which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God.

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Gish became an actress when a friend of her mother’s got a job in a touring company that needed a little girl. Her salary was $10 a week. Not long after, Dorothy, two years younger, was taken on the road by another friend to play Little Willie in ‘East Lynne.’

‘Life on the road was incredibly hard for a child,’ Gish recalls. ‘There were oatmeal meals, hard benches and floors to sleep on, uncomfortable trains, and being stranded far from New York and friends. It was difficult to maintain friends. I never learned how to play with other children.

‘I never had an acting lesson. I was simply told, ‘Go out there and speak loud and clear or we’ll get another little girl.’ It was also drilled into us that when an audience pays to see a performance, it is entitled to the best performance you can give. Nothing in your personal life must interfere, neither fatigue, illness, nor anxiety.

‘There were no labor laws then to protect children in the theater from long hours and bad conditions and lack of schooling, and we were always on the run from the Gerry Society that did seek to protect children. I once outwitted a judge at 10 years old by wearing high heels, a long dress and hair done in a knot so I would appear the legal age of 16.’ —

It is the films made with Griffith that gave Gish lasting fame, recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Special Oscar Award in 1971, and by the American Film Institute with a Life Achievement Award in 1984.

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

Griffith had made 400 short films before Gish and Dorothy went to work for him, but it was his first full-length film, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ that won him and Lillian Gish national attention. In his greatest achievement, ‘Intolerance,’ she played a mother rocking a cradle that linked the four disparate sections of the film into historical perspective.

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She is best remembered in such unblushing Griffith melodramas as ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm,’ all achieved, she claims, ‘without ever seeing a script because Griffith only had an outline and it was up to you to find the character in repeated rehearsals.’

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The famous ice floe scene from The Way Down East — with Lillian Gish.

‘Look at my right hand,’ she said, raising it to show several misshapen fingers. ‘Those fingers are crooked because I froze my hand while being photographed on an ice floe on a river in Vermont about 20 times a day for three weeks in ‘Way Down East.’ We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as a result of exposure.’

Later, she said, Hollywood gave up rehearsing scenes and expected actors who may not have met until that morning to be playing together with passion in the afternoon.

‘It’s a wonder films are as good as they are today using that technique. I always tried to find what the character is like and be that character, so rehearsals helped. When you get into a character, you do things you’d never do on your own.’

Gish may be best known to the present generation for TV appearances that began in 1949, in the Philco Playhouse production of ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and continued through ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ a PBS miniseries aired in February and March of this year in which she played Mrs. Loftus.

EM SAint The trip to bountiful

Her most famous TV role was that of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ an original television drama produced by the Philco Playhouse in 1953. This is the same role that won Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in March. Gish also played the role on Broadway when ‘Bountiful’ was transformed into a stage play.

‘It was the first television drama the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives,’ she said. ‘Of course, Horton Foote deserves a lot of credit, and Geraldine gave it to him, but I want to put a word in for Fred Coe, the Philco Playhouse producer, who was really ‘The Father of Television,’ just as Griffith was ‘The Father of Film.”

trip to bountiful

Gish says she almost never goes to see films today, but does watch some television, especially the news.

‘Movies hurt my pride,’ she says. ‘They used to have love, sentiment, and tenderness, but in today’s lovemaking, they just swallow each other’s tonsils. Television had good drama in the early days. But now everything is too busy, too nervous, too unsure of itself.’

Gish prefers reading, especially history, literature, drama, art and religion (she is a devout Episcopalian).

‘Lillian would be equally at home with the Beatles and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ commented Peter Glenville, who directed her in ‘The Comedians,’ a 1967 film about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. ‘And they would equally appreciate her.’

Because she was on the road for most of her childhood, she did not attend regular schools, except for a term spent at an Ursuline academy in Missouri while her actress mother made a brief try at running a candy store in East St. Louis.

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‘I used to feel inferior around my cousins, most of whom had gone to college, and I thought they knew a great deal more than I did,’ she says. ‘Now I realize that although I never went to school or received a diploma, I have kept right on learning. I never wanted to own anything but books and I have always been curious and had the energy to pursue my interests.’

She never really had a home either, spending most of her adult life in hotels until she and her mother took apartments in 1929 just off Sutton Place on New York’s smart East Side, a neighborhood in which she still lives.

Lillian Gish in the 80's 5

Sitting on a graceful French canape couch and pointing to the feminine Louis XV-style chairs and tables and the Venetian mirrors in her green-and-gold drawing room, she said, ‘These are all mother’s things. You see, I never really wanted a home.’ —

Gish stands 5-feet-6, erect, and is so healthy she has never had a regular doctor and hasn’t had a headache in 50 years. In fact, she is wary of doctors, observing that ‘My mother’s operation was a great success and she was dead two weeks later. I think if I ever had to go to the hospital, I’d die in the ambulance.’

Gish maintains her girlhood weight of 112 pounds and gives credit for her trimness to her ‘upside down board,’ a contraption given to her by a older male admirer years ago.

‘Older men have always helped me,’ she said. ‘They have given me valuable advice on my health. I find the human race is so dear that when you give them pleasure they want to help you.’

Gish keeps her tilt board by the fireplace just under two Grandma Moses paintings, one given her by Grandma herself when Gish portrayed her on television and the other a gift of Helen Hayes, Gish’s best friend. Gish is godmother to Hayes’ actor son, James MacArthur.

‘I use the board for 30 minutes every morning,’ she said. ‘It puts your feet above your head. Very good for the whole system. Some years ago I took it down the street to Hammacher Schlemmer’s store, which carries all sorts of health machines and they copied it and still stock it.

‘The human body is a miracle. I wish we taught children growing up how to treat it as one. The body is the only house you get to live in and you have to take care of it. —

Lillian Gish NY apartment

‘I have never had a special diet, having always eaten what I want to eat. Anyway, it would have made it difficult for other people if I had been on a diet. I love oysters and fish. I don’t eat beef anymore, however. It makes me think of how cows are slaughtered.’

Gish makes her own breakfast and skips lunch. Her friend-secretary-factotum of 18 years, Jim Frasher, a gifted cook, makes her dinner before he leaves for the day. Frasher, a former stage manager, helps her with correspondence, which averages 40 letters a day.

Her unoccupied maid’s room has been turned into a little gallery of mementoes, ranging from caricatures of Gish by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to a Blackglama ad showing Gish, ‘a legend,’ swathed in mink.

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Oil portraits, some quite large, are scattered throughout the apartment. There is one of Gish’s mother in the entrance hall and one of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States and a cousin of her mother’s, in the dining room. A costume portrait of Dorothy, who died in 1968, dominates the living room.

In her book, Gish said Dorothy, whose nickname was ‘Baby,’ never really grew up, had difficulty making decisions, was untidy and disorganized. Gish, a neat, organized person, could not bear to share an apartment with her. Dorothy married James Rennie, one of her leading men in films. They were divorced and Dorothy never remarried.

The precocious moppets of melodrama had parallel careers, starting together with Griffith on location in the Delaware Water Gap, then moving to California in 1913 because he preferred its warm climate and the longer hours of sunlight for shooting.

By 1914 Lillian was pronounced ‘The Most Popular Actress Before the American Public,’ a pinnacle Dorothy would never achieve, although she was a big star in her own right and had a creditable stage career in the 1930s and 1940s. But as drama critic Brooks Atkinson was to point out, they were always ‘the Gish sisters’ in the public mind, ‘as much of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S Truman.’

The Gishes made the transition from silent to talking pictures without difficulty, probably due to their stage experience when they were young. Lillian’s voice is still strong and vibrant.

‘It helped to have been in the theater, and I also had lessons with Victor Maurel, the great French opera singer who lived in Hollywood. He taught me to speak from the diaphram to the mouth without using the throat. Very useful if you have a cold!’

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

Lillian and Dorothy last appeared together in a summer theater tour of Enid Bagnold’s play, ‘The Chalk Garden,’ in 1956.

‘We were much closer than most sisters,’ said Gish. ‘We were always concerned with each other’s welfare. Even when our work separated us, there was a kind of extra-sensory perception that bound us together. I like to think of the first words Hal Holbrook uttered in ‘I Never Sang for My Father,’ the Broadway play I was in just before Dorothy died – ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” —

Gish has never had time to be lonely.

She has been in demand as an actress and an adornment for grand occasions marking anniversaries in the film and theater and honoring other stars. One of the most thrilling was the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial gala in 1983 when she appeared as the dreaming girl in ‘The Specter of the Rose’ with Paris Opera Ballet star Patrick Dupond.

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

‘The following year, they did a ballet in Paris based on my career and Dorothy’s,’ Gish said. ‘Can you imagine?’

‘Right now I’m waiting for the ‘Lillian Gish’ rose to have its first flowering, so they can officially call it that,’ she said. ‘It’s a hybrid, developed in the Midwest, and I’m very excited about it.’

This year she was guest of honor at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled ‘Hollywood: Legend and Reality,’ in Washington, D.C.

Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s
Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s

Last summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection conferred its annual Star Award on Gish, and she went to Vancouver, Canada, for a screening at Expo ’86 of a documentary that French film star Jeanne Moreau made of her life. Moreau filmed Gish at home, on the streets of New York and at the upstate horse farm of restaurateur Jerry Brody, nuzzling the racehorse named for her.

”Lillian Gish’ has won two races at Aqueduct,’ Gish said proudly.

If Gish had her life to live over, she would like to have done more Shakespeare — certainly Juliet, which eluded her when she was young – because she has ‘always been a snob about my playwrights.

‘I played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, a most remarkable experience. He didn’t play Hamlet. He WAS Hamlet. It was the only play I was ever in when stage hands stood in the wings to watch.’

When she did appear in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production in Stratford, Conn., she played Juliet’s elderly nurse.

Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet - 1965
Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet – 1965

‘Most people do not connect me with Tennessee Williams, but he actually wrote the prototype of the Blanche DuBois role for me in a one-acter called ‘Portrait of a Madonna,’ which evolved in 1947 into the full-length ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,” Gish said.

Another aspect of Gish’s career that is rarely remembered is the major role she took in various aspects of Griffith’s productions, including film editing.

‘He seemed to have faith in my judgment,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the darkroom to pick up the rushes, then I’d fight to have more of me cut out of the film. I always thought an audience should be left wanting more, rather than being surfeited with my image.

‘In those days we worked closely with one another. Now the men who work on developing film are far away from the studios. Everything is different. What was once warm and personal is now mechanical. Film acting became largely a matter of doing what you are told and collecting your salary.

‘When I worked for Griffith, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week because we liked it. There was no place as interesting as the studio.’

If Gish could wish for anything in the world and have it come true, what would it be?

Without hesitation she responds: ‘To follow spring around the world.’

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Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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As a film historian \ I am very concerned about the current agitation at Bowling Green

SPOILER WARNING !!!, this material is related to the attack that targeted Miss Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, their reputation and memory.

By William M. Drew

I am writing you to express my concern about an attempt to remove the names of the Gish sisters from a campus theater in Ohio as a consequence of the constant, non-stop demonization of D. W. Griffith over “The Birth of a Nation.” I am hoping that, by alerting you to this, you might be able to get the word to others in the academic community seriously committed to the study and appreciation of film art. Perhaps this can lead to a coordinated protest so that this effort will not succeed.

What has happened is as follows. Back in 1976 when the United States was still a democracy, people at Bowling Green State University, Ohio decided to name a campus theater after Ohio native daughter Lillian Gish. Lillian refused the honor unless it also included her sister Dorothy so they then named it the Gish Film Theater with which Lillian was quite happy. The theater was in operation for many years and Dr. Ralph H. Wolfe put together a collection of memorabilia associated with the Gishes which was on display there. As the theater was in need of renovation by 2016, however, it was felt its function, including the name, should be transferred to another location.

Eventually, they found what they felt was an ideal campus location for the Gish Film Theater–a building that is also used by the students union. So in January of this year, 2019, the Gish Film Theater reopened at its new site in a dedication hosted by Eva Marie Saint, now 94 and a longtime friend of Lillian Gish, who had come all the way to the university for this special event.

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Soon after, however, campus activists led by the Black Students Union began demanding that the name of Gish be dropped from the theater because Lillian had played the leading feminine role in “The Birth of a Nation.” They claimed that the reason they had not objected to the Gish name being attached to the theater previously is because it was in a much less visible, almost hidden part of the campus than it is now. Pressure has continued to mount and the university president says he will render a decision on whether the Gish name stays or is removed in May.

Students attending to Black Issues Conference - Gish Theater

As the saying goes, we’ve seen this movie before. In 1998, 21 years ago, there was a similar controversy on another college campus, Northern Kentucky University in Covington, over Red Grooms’ sculptures of D. W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer filming Lillian Gish on the ice in “Way Down East.” The sculptures had occupied a prominent situation on the campus since being placed there in 1979. For years, they brightened the otherwise dreary-looking campus without any controversy. But with Griffith’s reputation beginning to disintegrate in the 1990s as more and more attacks were launched against him in the media, perhaps it was inevitable that this would have an adverse effect on any monument or memorial to him even if, as in this case, it had nothing whatever to do with “The Birth of a Nation.” With students and academics demanding that NKU get rid of this monument to a “racist” filmmaker, the college administrators bowed to their demands and the sculptures were removed and then dismantled.

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With this perhaps as a precedent, the following year in December 1999 Griffith’s name was removed from the Lifetime Achievement Award that the Director’s Guild of America had been giving to outstanding filmmakers since 1953. The Guild said that they were doing so because Griffith had perpetrated “intolerable racial stereotypes” in his films. Unlike the NKU controversy which attracted little attention outside the northern Kentucky/southern Ohio region, the DGA’s decision was widely reported, eliciting a variety of comment, pro and con. In the ensuing years, while the denunciations of Griffith over “The Birth of a Nation” have never ceased and with very little attention paid to his other works, there have not been similar efforts to dishonor him publicly for the simple reason that there are few memorials of any kind to commemorate his existence. There are no other awards bearing his name, no grand museum honoring his life and work, no cities and parks named after him nor theaters, either, no towering statues of him. It seemed that all those who had come to despise him could do was continue writing and producing vitriolic books, articles and documentaries about him in which he was forever blamed for just about all of America’s racial problems.

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Now that the Gishes are being targeted, I suppose I should utter that old cliche that I’m not surprised. But actually I am. For example, there is the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize established by provisions in Lillian’s will to reward worthy artists. One of its more recent recipients was none other than Spike Lee who had no objections at all to receiving an award bearing the name of the actress who played Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation.”

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With no apparent controversy over this prestigious award and with numerous film critics and historians continuing to bestow on Lillian Gish the praise that they now generally withhold from Griffith who is more often than not reviled these days, I had actually thought she was immune to this kind of attack. But since the few memorials to the director have long since vanished, it is evidently Lillian’s turn to be denounced and dishonored as a surrogate for Griffith. And if they succeed in removing any honors to Lillian and sister Dorothy who, unlike Lillian, was not in “The Birth of a Nation,” will they then target Mary Pickford who was not in “The Birth of a Nation,” either, but who also did indeed work for Griffith?

d.w. griffith, mary pickford, charlie chaplin (seated) and douglas fairbanks at the signing of the contract establishing united artists motion picture studio

I don’t think it is hyperbole to observe that what we are seeing these days with all the attacks on memorials to iconic historical figures is an American equivalent of the Cultural Revolution that decimated China’s civilization in the 1960s and with much the same stated objective. While this kind of frenzy scarcely began amidst the meltdown caused by the disgraceful and incompetent administration of Donald J. Trump as witness the earlier anti-Griffith agitation of the late 1990s, there is no question that his repellent antics have only intensified the madness of the so-called resistance. If unchecked, it could spread to many other outstanding cultural figures, not only in cinema but in the older arts as well.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks - United Artists
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

Mark Twain could come under fire, not for “Huck Finn” but for “Tom Sawyer” due to the racially stereotyped character of Injun Joe. You could have activists running around Oakland demanding that the name of Jack London Square be changed because several of the writer’s statements seem racist to some. Not long ago I came across a college paper in which the “scholar” tried to argue that, based on passages in their works, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all racists or bigots. That this analyst appeared to be confusing the attitudes expressed by some of their characters with the personal views of the authors was clear enough to me. But in a time when critical thinking and reasoned debate has all but disappeared in this country and many other Western nations, this approach has become all too common.

United Artists Corporation Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, David Wark Griffith
United Artists Corporation – Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, David Wark Griffith

I believe therefore that it is imperative for all those concerned with cinema art to express their opposition to this attempt to remove the Gish name from the theater. If this attempt by the professionally outraged is not halted in its tracks, it will simply encourage more and more such assaults on our cultural heritage. From a feminist standpoint, it effectively applies an “Adam’s rib” conception to both Gish sisters in which they are no more than projections of a now despised and much misunderstood male artist without any individuality or creativity of their own. In an era in which women’s voices and contributions are supposed to count, scapegoating Lillian and Dorothy Gish for a portrayal in just one film that was conceived, not by Griffith but by the crackpot writer Thomas Dixon, Jr., the only person connected with “The Birth of a Nation” who merits censure, is utterly ridiculous.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

One of the high points of my viewing classic films was the time in 1995 when I witnessed a revival of “Way Down East” that proved electrifying in its emotional effect on the audience. The denunciation of the sexual double standard and the traditional male patriarchy elicited loud cheers and applause. I have never experienced such a response to any other film in all the years I attended theatrical screenings. It was this film that inspired those fighting for women’s rights all over the world including China in the 1920s where it proved enormously influential. But the continued attacks on Griffith which are now starting to engulf Lillian Gish as well have caused this to be almost completely forgotten.

I would very much appreciate it if you would consider contacting those of your colleagues in the film history field who conceivably could circulate a petition requesting that the name of the Gish Film Theater remain intact. If enough people sign it, I believe we might be able to prevent this effort at name change and public dishonor from going through.

As a film historian who enjoyed a very nice correspondence with Lillian Gish over the years and who has written extensively about D. W. Griffith, I am very concerned about the current agitation at Bowling Green State University to drop the name of Gish from the Gish Film Theater as a result of the never-ending controversy over “The Birth of a Nation.” Sadly, given the past history of such incidents where this issue is concerned, it is likely that the university will give in to such pressures unless there is a strong enough counter-protest to defeat this attempt.

  I have in mind getting up a petition that could be sent around for cinephiles and others concerned about the arts to sign. It could then be forwarded to the university president and if there are enough signatures on it, it might have the desired effect. I have other information about the Gishes, D. W. Griffith and many others from those years I will be happy to share with you. In the meantime, I am including in this e-mail a copy of a letter I’ve started sending out to film academics and others with a particular interest in this. It gives a background history for the situation that has now arisen. 

    I’m looking forward to hearing from you about this rather urgent matter soon. I will be very interested in any suggestions you may have.

 

Sincerely,

    William M. Drew

 

The Gish Theater Saga

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Gish sisters are an important part of film history

SPOILER WARNING !!!, this material is related to the attack that targeted Miss Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, their reputation and memory.

The New Gish Theater BGSU Front

photo by Reghan Winkler

(BG Falcon Media) Wally Pretzer Mar 14, 2019

The Black Student Union at BGSU would like to see the Gish Film Theater name removed from the Student Union. These students should know that the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize has been awarded to several African Americans, including Spike Lee.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith produced “The Birth of a Nation”, a racist movie that put the Ku Klux Klan in a favorable light. Lillian Gish played a nurse from the North caring for wounded soldiers. Because of her appearance in the film, the Black Students Union has implied that she is a racist; her sister, Dorothy, who was not in the film, is, by association with her sister, also, apparently, considered a racist. “The Birth of a Nation” has never been shown in the Gish Film Theater. President Rodney Rogers, assisted by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ray Craig, appointed a task force of students, faculty and other stakeholders to review the controversy to decide whether the name should be removed.

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What is appalling is that there is this movement afoot to defame the stellar film achievements of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, born and raised in Ohio. There is no doubt in my mind that if these black students succeed in their defamation of the characters of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, they will have destroyed important film history. Ralph Haven Wolfe founded the Gish Film Theater in 105 Hanna Hall in 1976. Ms. Gish came to the BGSU campus at least four times to be honored.

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If the Gish Film Theater name is removed, I think that it will indicate to the world that Bowling Green State University, as an institution dedicated to providing opportunities for differing views, has failed in that endeavor.

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https://www.bgfalconmedia.com/forum/ltte-gish-sisters-are-an-important-part-of-film-history/article_fb28098a-467b-11e9-9db3-4bf871e2732c.html

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The Gish Theater Saga

The Gish Theater Saga

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

 

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)