Chicago – Colored Dog (Chicago Tribune – 1940)

Chicago Tribune – Wednesday, November 6th 1940 – Page 26

Chicago – Colored Dog

The constant companion of Lillian Gish during the long run of “Life With Father” at the Blackstone is Malcolm, her West Highland terrier. A letter came to the Blackstone the other day addressed to a “Chicago-Colored” Highland Terrier, Property of Miss Lillian Gish, Blackstone Hotel,” from a woman at the Homestead, Virginia Hot Springs, who had petted Malcolm in the elevator. She asked for his mistress’ autograph. The description of Malcolm as “Chicago Colored” brings to mind our own comment upon seeing him.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

“What a lovely, delicate gray color he is,” we said upon encountering Miss Gish and Malcolm stroking his silky fur.

“You know he’s really a white dog, don’t you?” asked Miss Gish.

“But he rolls in Grant park every day when I take him for a walk.”

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

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Lillian Gish – A charming 73, she is life’s genuine heroine – By Pat Colander (Chicago Tribune 1973)

Chicago Tribune November 24 1973 Saturday Page 162

Lillian Gish

A charming 73, she is life’s genuine heroine

By Pat Colander

Can you do anything with this poor, tired face? inquired Lillian Gish from behind an impish grin. Of course the question is ridiculous. After 73 years of practicing her delightful brand of charm, she knows that anyone she meets is more than happy to do her bidding, even before she asks.

Lillian Gish promoting her Dorothy and Lillian Gish book in 1973 - New York
Lillian Gish promoting her Dorothy and Lillian Gish book in 1973 – New York

From the top of her faded blonde head to the tips of her tiny feet, Lillian Gish is a cornball prototype of the real-life, genuine heroine. Her beaming countenance recalls all the good things named traditional, just in case anybody she meets has forgotten how good it is to be free and own a television set.

“I always think of movies as the big screen and television as the little screen,” she chirped. “Of course, both are forms of the greatest power that the world has ever seen.” Miss Gish equates the film industry with Shakespeare and the Bible.

BUT EVEN this movie proponent will admit that something’s rotten in Hollywood. “I wish we could bring back good taste and beauty,” she moaned. “I think we’ve lost it.” Lillian Gish shakes her head, there have been roles that she’s had to turn down. “I wouldn’t be a part of what the movie had to say. I believe in the influence of a film,” she added “and I don’t like the wicked man winning out over the good man.”

Lillian Gish and Anne Tennehill 1973 at Helen Hayes
Lillian Gish and Anne Tennehill 1973 at Helen Hayes

The recent Supreme Court ruling on pornography isn’t the answer however. “Censorship isn’t the American way,” Miss Gish said. We ought to be able to control ourselves by not going to those movies that are bad. Don’t you agree?”

She dismisses modern political scandals with theatrical boredom. Her ideology has become hardened in the face of many social upheavals she’s watched pass by. “Those things have been going on all my life,” she smiled some more, “only we called it Democrat and Republican. Certainly our country’s never been better. More people have more things and are more prosperous.”

THE THING she does feel that she knows about is the college crowd, after lecturing on the nostalgia circuit during the last few years. She defends the Pepsi generation with the characteristic line, “We just don’t hear about affirmation and the really good people on the campuses.”

opening of uncle vanya june 4 1973 h hayes l gish
Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish at the opening of Uncle Vanya, 1973 edition. Thus a full cycle is complete, the first play Lillian Gish starred in was Uncle Vanya (1930) an her last, Mike Nichols’s production.

Personally, Lillian Gish had little use for higher or lower education. Her star-crossed career began at 4 when Lillian and her little sister Dorothy hit the Broadway footlights. “We always felt lucky that we didn’t have to stay in one town and go to school,” she chuckled. “We were educated as we went thru the country.”

“I used to have an inferiority complex,” she moaned, but justified her lack of formal schooling with the deeper curiosity that developed as a result. “The future of education lies in television. Some man or woman will come along and harness it.”

Lillian Gish isn’t happy with the current form of educational broadcasting. “You know, in England they don’t approve of Sesame Street.”

CHICAGO IS an indelibly etched chapter in Lillian Gish’s new memory book, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish” [Charles Scribner’s Sons, $19.95], a picture album sketching her lenghty career. “Chicago has more civic pride than any other city,” she said. “They pushed the city back and built it around a lake.”

uncle vanya - 1973 mike nichols
Lillian Gish and Mike Nichols – Uncle Vanya – 1973

The Windy City topic opened a pandora’s box of anecdotes. “I had a favorite taxi driver here when playing the Blackstone Theater,” she remembered. “When there was someplace that I couldn’t take my little dog Malcolm, Mr. Marcus would take care of him. Actually, I think he liked Malcolm and put up with me.”

Altho this little bundle of ancient energy has just closed in Mike Nichol’s New York production of “Uncle Vanya,” and by mid-afternoon has been doing interviews since 6 a.m., she thinks it would be thrilling to go dancing in the evening. After all, the this-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life philosophy by now comes out sounding like a Lillian Gish original.

Lillian Gish – Big on the big screen

1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish Nov 6 1973 Sun Times
1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish Nov 6 1973 Sun Times

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La Tragique Lillian by the Sea (Picture Play Magazine – 1926)

Lillian Gish - Santa Monica - Vanity Fair June 1927
Lillian Gish – Santa Monica – Vanity Fair June 1927


Picture Play Magazine – June, 1926 Volume XXIV No. 4

Hollywood High Lights

Lillian by the Sea


Lillian Gish has succumbed to the lure of the seaside. When she first came to California, she stopped at the Beverly Hills Hotel, but now she has rented Mrs. Charlotte Pickford’s house at Santa Monica.

“I am doing all the pleasurable and recreational things that I have wanted to do all my life,” she told us not long ago. “I am sleeping out underneath the stars on a sleeping porch, going in swimming every morning, and am taking up horseback riding. I am going to ride along the beach, too, right at the edge of the surf, and splash through it if I want.”

Incidentally, she has had a touch of loneliness lately, because of the fact that her sister Dorothy, who came to the Coast for a brief visit, is now in Europe, to be gone a whole year. Mary and Doug, too, with whom Lillian, usually spends much of her time, have also left.

Lillian Gish 1924 with Mr. Gwyn
Lillian Gish 1924 with Mr. Gwyn


La Tragique Lillian.

Another picture that we have looked at lately is “La Boheme,” with Lillian Gish and Jack Gilbert. King Vidor, who made “The Big Parade,” was the director. It looks as though he will make nothing but the bigger type of feature from now on.

Lillian Gish and John Gilbert - La Boheme
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – La Boheme

“La Boheme” we liked, because of the acting of Miss Gish, particularly in the death scene, and because of its remarkable pictorial beauty. There are many scenes in this film that are so like paintings that they are delightful. It is incidentally the kind of picture that necessitates the borrowing of an extra large handkerchief from dad—the kind of picture, in fact, that makes for a fine, weepy afternoon or evening, and that may be rendered magical through the further emotion stirred up by a musical accompaniment arranged, from the opera.

(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish retrouvaille, caleche, diligence, cocher, chevaux d'apres le roman de Henri Murger detail

It is not exactly the sort of film, however, that will appeal to the male contingent of the family, unless they happen to be of a very artistic frame of mind, and capable of appreciating beauty in the abstract. “La Boheme” cannot be said to possess sturdy entertainment values, but its high qualities of beauty make it a production well worth every fan’s time.


Gilbert’s portrayal is not one of his most striking, but he is, as always, a flashing personality, and some of his acting, as when during the celebration of his success he longs for the return of Mimi, is very effective. The story has been properly purified to pass the censors, but manages to follow with very fair loyalty the original opera. We meant to mention, in speaking of these two pictures, that George K. Arthur does a characterization of almost unrivaled sincerity as the celebrated modiste. Madame Lucy—yes, she’s a man—in “Irene,” and that Renee Adoree, in her very brief opportunity as Musetta in “La Boheme,” is truly fascinating. This girl has a great chance to be the one and only favorite in roles that are French-accented. Arthur, who was The Boy of the now historic, but not to be forgotten, five-thousand-dollar “Salvation Hunters.” is rapidlv coming to be one of the film’s most efficient young character players. He could have made a wretched burlesque of Madame Lucy in “Irene,” but he plays this role so much as if he believed in it that he does not run the least risk—and there was a danger of that—of giving offense to those who happen to be a little discriminating about the sort of types that they see in pictures.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert


The Bernhardt of the Screen.

I wish to say that I sat through—or rather wept through—”La Boheme,” and I call Lillian Gish’s interpretation of Mimi perfect ! And I think those critics who do not agree with me simply are not able to appreciate Miss Gish’s fragile beauty and pathos. I had not seen this great artist for ten years (since “The Birth of a Nation”) and it overawes me to think what heights of greatness she will have reached ten years from today. Yes, I fully believe Lillian Gish is to be “The Bernhardt of the Screen !” Boston, Massachusetts. A. L. S.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

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Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish) – By Charles Affron – 2001

Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish)

By Charles Affron (2001)

Lillian, who had not abandoned hope of returning to the big screen, was overjoyed at being considered for a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s A Family Plot. “My heart skipped a few beats at receiving such good news I am second to none in my admiration for your work. Nothing could give me more happiness than being a part of a film you are directing.,, Before she wrote the note to Hitchcock she had already lost the part to Cathleen Nesbitt. Two short religious films and four features would complete the Gish filmography. She would close her career in the medium that had first made her a star.

Lillian Gish in Hitchcock's Body in the Barn
Lillian Gish in Hitchcock’s “Body in the Barn”

“I’m a believing person. I believe in God, even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful. It keeps going on and I think we do too.” True to her Episcopalian background, Lillian was a longtime parishioner of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. Her schoolgirl fascination with the religious life had resurfaced in her fervent assumption of the leading roles of nuns in The White Sister and The Joyous Season. At one point, she expressed the desire to write a book about religion. When in June 1974, at the request of the Swedenborg Foundation, Lillian recorded Helen Keller’s My Religion for the blind, she was struck by Keller’s writing on Swedenborg.

Lillian agreed to appear as a Swedish matron who, while sitting for her portrait, tells of having witnessed one of Swedenborg’s visions, in a short 16mm film produced for the Swedenborg Foundation, Swedenborg: The Man Who Had to Know (1978). In this cameo role, she never moves from her chair. Johnny Appleseed and the Frontier Within (1981), another thirty-minute film sponsored by the organization, casts Lillian as “a charming woman of pioneer origins in the parlour of her 1871 Cincinnati home with her pompous nephew/’ She provides the frame for the story of Johnny Appleseed and his “reverence for the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg in what appears to be an under-rehearsed, hastily shot scene, Lillian looks remarkably youthful but sounds like an old lady having difficulty with her lines. In Johnny Appleseed, however, she is not the only actor whose delivery is hesitant.

Robert Altman - Lillian Gish (A Wedding)
Robert Altman – Lillian Gish (A Wedding)

There is nothing halting about her acting in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978). Here was Lillian Gish at age eighty-five, as close as anyone had been, literally and metaphorically, to the creation of movie narrative, engaged by a director who had successfully defied narrative conventions with M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). “It’s a new thing for me and I’m a pioneer at heart. I love new ventures and to arrive on the scene and not have a script and not have a word written that I’m supposed to speak is so new to me but like all new things I like it.” In fact, unlike much of the dialogue in Altman’s films, Lillian’s lines were scripted. And some of her habits could not be broken: “No matter how many times Altman said, ‘Call me Bob,’ the dignified leading lady of D. W. Griffith films insisted on calling him ‘Mr. Altman.'”

A Wedding
A Wedding

Lillian plays Nettie Sloan, the family matriarch, who, having orchestrated a complicated wedding, raises her eyes to the heavens, utters, “Thank you, God,” and dies without so much as a sigh or a movement of the head. The image of her peaceful face reappears a number of times during A Wedding.

A Wedding
A Wedding

The characters talk to her, some as if she were alive, others knowing that she is dead. The role’s few lines are spoken in the first ten minutes of the movie. After that, Lillian, her hair spread on the pillow as if she were a young girl, is a still, perfect image in a willfully chaotic narrative. As a contrast to the wayward family at the center of the plot, Lillian is the icon of good breeding. So much of an icon is Lillian that she is called upon to play dead through most of the film. For Altman it is a death specific to Lillian. “Nettie’s death is the death of a silent screen star.”

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish

Would that she had played dead rather than accept the offer of Hambone and Hillie, a movie that gives her top billing and shows her to exceptionally poor advantage. In addition to the lure of financial gain (a guarantee of $20,000) and a starring role, the project may have appealed to Lillian’s love of animals. After Georgie, the wirehaired terrier, a gift from George Jean Nathan, there was a King Charles spaniel named Gwyn, the subject of a lawsuit in 1928. (Valued at $5,000, Gwyn was lost, then recovered by Charles Comora, a tailor. Mr. Comora was arrested for not returning the dog.) In Scotland for the tryout of The Old Maid, Lillian accepted Malcolm, a West Highland white terrier, a present from Sir Ian Malcolm. Passionate on the subject of dogs, Lillian, as usual, spoke up. Her 1952 address to the New York Women’s League for Animals about canine health recommended no more  than two baths a year and a pinch of Epsom salts in the drinking water. Lillian also had a pet bird, Johnny Boy. At his death in 1950, she noted the burial of her “dear feathered friend” in the Bird Sanctuary. Lillian established her credentials among cat lovers by writing the foreword to theatre historian and curator George Freedley’s Mr. Cat: “How strange is the accident of birth and the gift of tongues. Speaking several languages, most of them poorly, I do pride myself on speaking cat and dog rather well, probably because of the patient training I have received from many fur friends.” (“Several” and “poorly” were somewhat generous assessments of Lillian’s skills in French and German, despite her many lessons.)

Hambone and Hillie
Hambone and Hillie

With its Lassie Come Home premise, Hambone and Hillie accidentally separates the beloved dog, Hambone, from his aged mistress, Hillie (Lillian). The action depicts the animal’s cross-continental adventures in search of her. Given the careless direction, which explains Lillian’s hesitant line readings, and her altogether inappropriate costumes (a bright red pants suit is perhaps the most egregious example), it is a blessing that most of her few scenes are brief. She had no trouble evaluating her contribution to Hambone and Hillie: “It’s all about four-legged actors, and I’m sorry to report they’re much better in the movie than the two-legged actors, because we two-legged actors didn’t have much to do. The dogs have all the good parts, and of course Hambone is the best. I’m going to proselyte for an Oscar for him.”

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

Lillian’s screen time was even shorter in Sweet Liberty (1986), written and directed by its star, Alan Alda. He plays a history professor and author of a best-seller about the Revolutionary War; Lillian is his aged mother. Entirely peripheral to the action, Lillian’s three short scenes are devoted to her portrayal of an adorable, eccentric old lady, a role she had played onstage (The Curious Savage, All the Way Home) and screen (Follow Me Boys!, Warning Shot).

Alan Alda, Lillian Gish and Michael Caine - Sweet Liberty 1986
Alan Alda, Lillian Gish and Michael Caine – Sweet Liberty 1986

Under the end credits, she is seen in a wheelchair, waving her arms with exaggerated enthusiasm, quite clearly out of control. Lillian was nearly ninety-two at the completion of Sweet Liberty. With that knowledge, viewers would have had every reason to think her as incapacitated and addled as the old woman she was impersonating. But any such notion would be dispelled by her next and final movie.

Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern – The Whales of August, 1987

The Whales of August, conceived at least seven years before it went into production, originated in producer Mike Kaplan’s friendship with Lillian which dated from the late 1960s, when Kaplan worked as a publicist for The Comedians. Kaplan couldn’t understand why Lillian had been “hidden from movie audiences for many years.” He wanted to find a role that would present her as a star, not as a supporting actress. Among the various possibilities, Lillian was enthusiastic about Abraham Polonsky’s novel Xenia’s Way. Her profound political differences with the once blacklisted director-novelist presented no difficulty. In fact, she made known to Kaplan, decades after the fact, of course, her distaste for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt, which had destroyed the career of Polonsky and many others. Mary Steenburgen was to play Lillian’s younger self in a story whose episodes were set in Europe during the Holocaust and later in a Palestinian camp in Israel. Kaplan remembers Lillian toasting the project with him and Polonsky in her New York apartment, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The financing did not materialize and Xenia’s Way was shelved.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for 'The Whales of August'
Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

Kaplan saw David Berry’s play The Whales ofAugust during its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. He thought first of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis for the roles of the two elderly sisters. When Davis refused the offer, Kaplan approached Katharine Hepburn, then Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom declined. In the meantime, Davis suffered a stroke and underwent an operation for cancer. Very much weakened, she returned to work in a made-for-TV movie with Helen Hayes, then recovered some of her strength and changed her mind about The Whales of August, attracted by its setting in her beloved New England. Lucille Ball passed on the third woman’s role, which went to Ann Sothern. Lillian expected to be reunited with John Gielgud, who was under contract for the part of Mr. Maranov, but he had to be replaced by Vincent Price at the last moment when the production for television’s War and Remembrance went over schedule. Price was happy to act something different from the “mad doctors” that had so long been his specialty. Lillian was offered an advance of $75,000, with an equal amount deferred. Her five net points of the producer’s share earned her nothing since, as of June 1988, the film showed a loss of $2.5 million.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (1987)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (1987)

The Whales of August is about the relationship between two widowed, aged sisters, Sarah (Gish) and Libby (Davis). The action transpires in and near Sarah’s summer house, on a picturesque island off the coast of Maine. Twenty-four hours test the dynamics of dependence and independence of Sarah, still strong and optimistic, who cares for the blind, embittered, and domineering Libby. The crux of the action is Sarah’s desire to install a picture window so as to enhance the view. Libby, the affluent one, crankily refuses. Their old friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) offers Sarah a haven away from the ill tempered Libby and suggests that she sell the house; Maranov, a courtly Russian emigre, comes to dinner. The next morning, the sisters renew their commitment to each other. Sarah agrees to stay and Libby orders the picture window.

Lindsay Anderson, whose direction of This Sporting Life (1963) and If . . . (1969) had helped define Britain’s “angry young man” cinema, was not the most likely candidate for this nearly plotless, atmospheric piece, but he was a friend of Kaplan’s, had met Lillian, and was eager to work with her. He demanded, however, that David Berry alter the conclusion of The Whales of August. In the play, the sisters decide to separate. Their reconciliation in the movie gives extra dimension to the role of Libby, which must certainly have pleased Bette Davis.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (the last scene)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (the last scene)

Shot on Cliff Island in Casco Bay off the coast of Portland, Maine, in September and October 1986, the movie’s production conditions were difficult. When it was over, Lillian wrote, “Well, we are back alive from the very rough, tough shoot in Maine of The Whales of August and it was a long, hard haul with weather to and fro and the interior of the house so small that it took forever to move the camera and re-light but that part of the film is done.” Then there was the age and physical condition of the actresses, who had some difficulty negotiating the steep, uneven paths of the location. And for the final shot of the two sisters, standing on a point of land overlooking the ocean, the wind was so strong that Lillian’s manager, Jim Frasher, and an assistant director had to squat out of the camera’s view to anchor the feet of Lillian and Bette to the ground. As a result of a serious stage accident in which she had suffered a broken back, Ann Sothern walked with a heavy limp. Lillian’s medical certificate, signed on July 29, 1986, indicates that she was in fine health, five feet three inches tall (three inches shorter than when she was a young adult), weighing 115 pounds, had blood pressure at 140/90, and a pulse of 70. But even allowing for the birth date of October 14, 1899, which lopped six years off her life, she was still a very old woman whose hips had been replaced. Her costar, partially paralyzed from her stroke and painfully thin, had undergone a mastectomy. And for most of her career, Bette Davis, famous for her temper and sharp tongue, had been a demanding, often unpleasant colleague. Bette’ s enfeebled condition had not brought her to turn over a new leaf.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)

During the first, unfortunate working encounter between the costars, Lillian was sitting in the only available chair when Bette entered. She addressed her as “Bette”; Bette addressed Lillian as “Miss Gish.” Lillian offered the chair to Bette, fifteen years her junior. Bette was offended. From then on, a palpable tension settled between the two women. Ann Sothern speculated, “I think that she [Bette] felt intimidated by Lillian because Lillian is motion pictures. Who could ever criticize Lillian Gish? It’s like criticizing the Statue of Liberty!”

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August, 1987

According to cast member Harry Carey Jr., “Lillian just closed her mind to Bette and went her own merry way; Bette had no effect on her.” Near the end of shooting, Jim Frasher made dinner for the stars, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Kaplan. Bette made no secret of her displeasure when Kaplan, tending to production problems, arrived somewhat late.

Bette Davis - The Whales of August
Bette Davis – The Whales of August

Bette’s temperament and her talent thrived on contention and rivalry; for Lillian, diplomacy was the key to the negotiation of her life and her career. But Lillian would not have survived so long if she had been a pushover. When things were not going smoothly with Bette, diplomacy prompted Lillian to feign difficulty in hearing her costar’s lines, a problem miraculously solved as soon as the atmosphere changed for the better. The conflict between the two stars reflected the contrast between the sisters they were playing and certainly added much needed energy to the final product, for which both Lillian and Bette were thankful. They were, after all, great movie actresses, eager to do their best.

In one scene, Libby wakens from a nightmare and vents her desperation on Sarah. “Although Miss Davis’ dialogue was poignant, her grappling was vigorous. I couldn’t tell if Miss Gish was acting out her agitated reaction or simply responding to the force of Miss Davis’ energy. I only imagined Miss Gish’s upper arms covered with black and blue marks, or worse.” Lillian’s reaction: “I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today.” Bette was able to overcome her animosity long enough to express her admiration of Lillian’s acting in the quarrel scene, one of the movie’s turning points. “After their last take together, Bette came forward, wincing a little, and there was an incredulous silence on the set as the embattled legends solemnly embraced. With dulcet insincerity, Lillian said, ‘We must do this again.’ And Bette replied: ‘Mm.’ “

american actress lillian gish with indian-born british director lindsay anderson attend the 1987 cannes film festival to present his movie the whales of august. (photo by john van hass
American actress Lillian Gish with indian-born british director Lindsay Anderson attend the 1987 Cannes film festival to present his movie The Whales of August. (photo by John Van Hass)

The commercial failure of The Whales ofAugust and its brief run in Los Angeles probably robbed Lillian of the Oscar nomination that a combination of her talent and voter sentiment might have earned her. She did manage a tie with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) for the Best Actress award from the National Board of Review.

Belying her ninety-three years, Lillian, as Sarah, is energetic throughout The Whales of August. If her step is not exactly sprightly, it is certainly firm, and thereby expressive of the core of her character as it is of the actress. Much to the annoyance of the blind and sedentary Libby, she hangs the clothes, sets the table, dusts, prepares meals. For the first half of the movie, Lillian is sweet and compliant in the “old lady” mode she had so often been obliged to adopt for her movie roles. But here there is something more. As protagonist and star, she has the opportunity to develop the character through time, to reveal layers of individuality beneath the conventional surface of the “good” sister.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - Whales

Sarah’s strength emerges in the scene of the argument, when she defies Libby’s objection to inviting Maranov for dinner. During the rest of the film, Lillian deploys the reserves of emotional depth denied the movie screen for so many years. It had been a long time since The Wind. And while Duel in the Sun, The Comedians, and The Unforgiven, among Lillian’s talkies, had bravura moments, only The Night of the Hunter contained durations sufficiently long to reveal the character’s inner life, to follow the actress within herself. Lillian’s Sarah is particularly moving when she is alone with her memories and the movie camera, drawing us into the past as we plumb the image of the present. It is Sarah’s forty-sixth wedding anniversary.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Wearing a long blue dress, she sets the table with a glass of wine, a white rose “for truth,” a red one “for passion,” and her dead husband’s photograph. With Lillian’s customary directness, Sarah speaks to her absent beloved of the day’s events, then goes to an old Victrola and puts on the record of a tenor sweetly singing the sentimental World War I ballad “Roses of Picardy.” Here, Lillian somehow manages to connect the fullness of the memories with the vibrancy of her life. Perhaps she simply lets the moment speak for itself, the context providing the specific meanings required by the plot, while Lillian Gish, so much a representative of the past in the present, coats the situation with her generous sensibility.

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August" (1987)
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August” (1987)

She had not lost her talent for the high degree of disclosure that had always been her special gift. Old Sarah is not old Lillian, yet viewers familiar with the actress’s iconography must have had an eerie reaction to shots that placed Lillian with photographs of her family posing as Sarah’s: Mary Gish and Lillian as a baby, James Leigh Gish, and most unsettling of all, Lillian and Dorothy in the 1930s, the face of Bette Davis superimposed over Dorothy’s. Actors often lend their personal memorabilia in such occasions, a spectacular example being Sunset Boulevard, where photographs and a film clip contrast the young Gloria Swanson and the mature actress who plays Norma Desmond. There is, obviously, no hint of Dorothy’s character in Bette Davis’s portrayal of Libby. Nor is there any way to know that the fictional sibling relationship of a strong and healthy older sister who cares for a weak and ailing younger one had particular resonance for Lillian while she was making The Whales ofAugust. Certainly, few in the audience would have made the connection.

Final scene - real photographs of Lillian Gish's relatives (The Whales of August)
Final scene – real photographs of Lillian Gish’s relatives with some add ins suited for “The Whales of August”

Whatever its source, Lillian drew a performance compelling for an actress of any age, let alone one ninety-three years old. Yet Lillian’s great age does raise some intriguing questions. Has anyone as venerably old ever sustained a leading role in a movie? Edith Evans, who was a mere seventy-eight when The Whisperers was released, went on for another nine years in character parts.

The Whales of August must have lulled filmmakers into thinking Lillian eternal. Claude Lelouch offered her a part in his Cache-Tampon (Hide and Seek), to be shot just outside Paris, starting in May 1989. But Lillian had already fulfilled her last professional commitment—an appearance at the world premiere of The Whales of August, in New York, on October 14, 1987, her ninety-fourth birthday.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Vincent Price and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

In retirement, the once indefatigable traveler did not become a recluse. She was simply more and more homebound. The seven-room apartment, 13A, at 430 East Fifty-seventh Street, which she had occupied since 1948, had ” smallscale traditional furnishings” and the autographed books Lillian treasured. Movie and theatre memorabilia were absent. There were many photographs of family and close friends. Among the pictures in the gallery constituted by one wall were those of John Gielgud (signed “Hamlet John”) and George Jean Nathan; D. W. Griffith claimed the central spot. Lillian, who had paid close attention to her health for so long, was rewarded with relative serenity in her final years. Of course, a woman well on the far side of ninety could not expect every day to be perfect. Elizabeth Ross was saddened at her last visit, about 1990, when she found Lillian unaware of how much she had declined. “It wasn’t Lillian sitting there that day. It was not somebody who could conquer the world, or so she thought. . . . She needed care, and Lillian never needed care.” Eva Marie Saint last saw her in bed, after she had fractured her hip. But, until the end, Lillian was lucid, able to speak, even to read. James Frasher was at her side when she died, peacefully, in her own bed, at 7 p.m. on February 27, 1993. Fifty years previously, Lillian had left instructions that she wished to be cremated. She hoped Ruth Gordon would “say a few words and Paul Robeson recite the ‘Twenty-Third Psalm” She had outlived them both. At the “Celebration for the Life of Lillian Gish” held at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church two weeks after her death, there were tributes from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her godson, James MacArthur, the son of Helen Hayes. Irene Worth read a selection from Milton’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Her ashes were interred at St. Bart’s alongside those of Mary and Dorothy Gish.

Lillian Gish in Whales of August

Lillian’s considerable estate, largely composed of stocks and bonds, and property in Beverly Hills, was valued at more than $10 million. Her personal effects, paintings, and furniture had been appraised at $232,000 in 1980. Approximately $1 million was distributed among family and friends, with the largest of these bequests going to James Frasher. The bulk of Lillian’s fortune was placed in a trust whose income constitutes the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts. Lillian stated the purpose of the prize in her will: “As an actress in films and on the stage and as a writer and lecturer on the subject of films, it has been my desire to contribute, through the performing arts, to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (As if to demonstrate that Lillian’s criteria give no particularly priority to the performing arts, the first recipient of the $250,000 award was architect Frank O. Gehry.) In her prescription for the awardee, Lillian might have been describing herself: “The recipient should by excelling in his or her field have served as a model and encouragement to all others who would follow in his or her path.” She, who had served the arts so faithfully throughout her long life, both as performer and proponent, found a way for her fervor to survive her death.

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life

By Charles Affron – 2001

The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet
The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet

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At 88, ‘Iron Butterfly’ spirit indomitable (1984)

Desert Sun, Number 141, 16 January 1984

At 88, ‘Iron Butterfly’ spirit indomitable


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) – With her delicate features and porcelain skin, she seems like a fragile doll. But at 88, Lillian Gish retains the same indominable spirit that has sustained her acting career for an astounding 83 years. She remains as firm of voice and opinion as when she was a silent star at MGM, where she was dubbed the Iron Butterfly. The memories of those years, and especially her beginnings as D.W. Griffith’s favorite heroine, remain evergreen. Yet she doesn’t live in the past. Miss Gish was in California to star in her 102nd movie, “Hambone and Hillie,” a Sandy Howard Production with O.J. Simpson, Timothy Bottoms, Jack Carter and Candy Clark.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing

After completing her work, she submitted to a series of interviews in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Interviewers were cautioned to restrict their time to 45 minutes so Miss Gish could rest 15 minutes between sessions. It hardly seemed necessary. She talked almost non-stop, ranging from memories of 80 years ago to observations of today’s show business. “Hambone and Hillie” is a dog story, and that brought to mind the many dogs Miss Gish and her late sister, Dorothy, owned over the years.

The first was a gift when they were 7 and 8 and appearing in melodramas in Boston that cost 10-30 cents admission. “We rode the train from Boston to New York, and it was the first Pullman we had ever taken,” Miss Gish related. “Always before we had slept in chair cars as we travelled from town to town. That night Dorothy and I climbed into the upper bed with the puppy, and we took turns staying awake to make sure it wouldn’t  fallout.’’ Lillian and Dorothy Gish were born a year apart in Springfield, Ohio. After their father drifted away, Mrs. Gish moved the girls to New York, took acting jobs in the theater out of desperation, and the daughters followed. “Of course, Mother disgraced the family by going into acting,” Miss Gish said. ‘lt simply would not have been proper back in Ohio. She used another name, and Dorothy and I never used our own names when we were small. We were always listed as ‘Baby Dorothy’ or Baby Lillian.’ Even when we went to work for Mr. Griffith, our names weren’t used. He didn’t believe in billing the actors.” D.W. Griffith recurs in Miss Gish’s conversation, always as “Mr. Griffith.” Their careers were intertwined, and when she wrote her 1969 autobiography, it was titled “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.”

miss lillian gish in her new york apartment, photographed in 1972 by allan warren k

Mary Pickford, who had known the Gish girls on the stage, persuaded Griffith to cast them in his one-reelers. Miss Gish’s virginal innocence made her the perfect Griffith heroine, and she later starred in his classics, “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance.” She went on to MGM, then returned to the stage after the advent of sound. Her scorn for “talkies” remains intense. “The movies lost 95 percent of their audience when they started to use words instead of music,” she said. “Even the nickelodeons in the earliest years had a piano to accompany silent films, and music is an international language. Our films were understood in every country of the world.” Miss Gish has divided her career among the theater (“Life With Father,” “The Chalk Garden”), films (“Duel in the Sun,” “Night of the Hunter,” “A Wedding”) and television (“Ladies in Retirement,” “Arsenic and Old Lace”). “I’m also working on two books and lecturing,” she said. “I’ve been around the world three times twice on the QE2 lecturing and showing Mr. Griffith’s films.

first time on lecture platform 1932

I also meet the press in every port.” The only time she remembers not working was when she had typhoid fever as a child in St. Louis. Dorothy Gish, who died in 1968 after a successful career of her own, was married briefly to actor James Rennie. Lillian Gish never married. She was once sued for breach of promise by a disappointed suitor, and she remarked proudly: “I helped change the New York law. I won the suit, and the judge ruled it was not legal for men to sue for breach of promise.” Does she have any regrets about not marrying? “No,” she replied firmly. “I loved a lot of dear men, but luckily I never ruined their lives by marrying them. What kind of a marriage would it have been to a wife who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week?” (Bob Thomas – 1984)

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

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Hambone and Hillie
Hambone and Hillie

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Miss Mabel (1950)

Miss Mabel (1950)

Miss Mabel is a 1948 stage play by R. C. Sherriff. It has been adapted for television at least five times.

1950 – A play in three acts, produced by Joel Shenker as a summer theatre touring package.

Advance director: Jerome Coray

With Charles Francis, Wallace Clark, Mark Roberts, Harry Bannister, Victor Beecroft, Gwen Anderson, Marie Carroll, Bethel Long.

Miss Mabel (1950)11

Subsequent cast changes throughout tour as well as resident actors playing different roles in each theatre (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish)

Also, a live version aired as part of British anthology series BBC Sunday Night Theatre in 1950. Cast included Mary Jerrold, Clive Morton, Richard Warner, W. E. Holloway, Josephine Middleton, Herbert C. Walton, Anne West, Ronald Marriott, Rowland Winterton and Anthony Farmer. It was performed on 26 March 1950 with a repeat performance on 29 March 1950. Both performances are lost, as the live broadcasts were not recorded.

Miss Mabel (1950)4

Rehearsals for Miss Mabel went smoothly, once we learned to anticipate interruptions over which we had no control, like the noise and whistling from the trains. We had an idea of their schedule, so we could time when we were going to have our words drowned during matinees and evening. Whoever was talking would just remain in place and not say a word until the train had passed. Clarence Derwent, for all his impressive British training and background, was a very casual actor. He had a very relaxed delivery, and he didn’t like to wear any makeup other than his costume.

Miss Mabel (1950)3

Once, on a matinee day, he came to the theatre from a long walk in the woods just before half-hour. He put on his costume and he took his seat on a soft chair onstage as the curtain went up, which he was supposed to do. A few minutes into the performance, he fell asleep.

The audience didn’t know what was happening, but onstage, including Lillian, did. Clarence wasn’t snoring.  He had leaned back and closed his eyes.

Lillian looked over in his direction, and very casually, during the course of the scene, tiptoed behind the chair where Clarence was sitting. She placed her hand on his shoulder leaned over, and blew on his neck!

Miss Mabel (1950) Lillian Gish and Clarence Derwent

She might have whispered something which only he could have heard, but Clarence opened his eyes and said his line as if the action were rehearsed!

Whether she gave him a dressing down afterwards we never knew. But he never took any morning walks on a matinee day. And he never closed his eyes in that chair for the rest of the run!

Miss Mabel (1950)6

When Miss Mabel company flew to the Bahamas to play an engagement at the Royal Colonial Theatre, Lillian made a star’s demand: to allow Malcolm, her West Highland terrier who had been with her since The Old Maid (1936), to ride next to her on the plane.

Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen – Stuart Oderman

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

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Mongrel Bites Lillian Gish When She Defends Pet Puppy (Evening Star DC, Sep. 1930)

The Evening Star Washington DC Monday, September 1, 1930

Mongrel Bites Lillian Gish When She Defends Pet Puppy

Actress Suffers Lacerated Hand Rescuing New Sicilian Animal.

Family Expects Recovery to Permit Stage Appearance September 23.

By The Associated Press.

Note: Malcolm (photographs), a West Highland terrier, was presented as a gift by Sir Ian Malcolm in 1937 when Miss Lillian Gish visited Scotland, seven years later …

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

NORWALK, Conn., September 1. – Lillian Gish, actress, was nursing a lacerated hand today, suffered when a mongrel dog bit her as she attempted to rescue her Sicilian puppy from its attack. She brought the puppy with her from Europe Saturday and was exercising it soon after her arrival here when a stray dog pounced upon her pet.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

She seized the mongrel to pull it off the puppy and the animal snapped at her, inflicting gashes in the palm and back of her left hand.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

The wounds were treated at the Norfolk Hospital, after which she returned to the McCullough home which her mother, Mrs. Mae Robinson, has taken for the summer with her other daughter, Dorothy Gish.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm
Lillian Gish and Malcolm

Miss Gish was confined to her bed, but members of her family said she would appear in a stage play in New York which is to open September 23.

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Evening Star Washington DC Sep 1 1930
Evening Star Washington DC Sep 1 1930 – Mongrel Bites Lillian Gish When She Defends Pet Puppy

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Malcolm & Friends

A reservation for two was made in Lillian’s name. Seats were reserved for Lillian Gish and Malcolm. Two seats. No further explanation. On the day of the departure, in walks Lillian Gish carrying Malcolm. Someone behind the counter looked quite surprised! But Lillian acted as if everything were within reason. “Here we are”, she announced, “Lillian Gish and Malcolm.” And before there was any kind of response, “The seats were confirmed for the two of us”. “Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen” By Stuart Oderman

Malcolm, a West Highland terrier, presented as a gift by Sir Ian Malcolm in 1937 when Miss Lillian Gish visited Scotland.

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