Griffith—and the Great War – By Paul H. Dowling (Picture-Play Magazine March 1918)

Picture-Play Magazine March 1918

Griffith—and the Great War

America’s foremost producer is preparing a film spectacle, based on the world contest, which is expected to eclipse his past masterpieces.

By Paul H. Dowling

Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish - in the ruins of Babylon
Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish – in the ruins of Babylon

The massive walls of the lathand-plaster Babylon were crumbling away slowly or being razed to the ground by scores of workmen. A fighting tower, swayed by the combined strength of half a hundred arms, bearing away at tackles and pulleys, toppled and crumpled into bits on the brown field of stubble, raising into the dear air a cloud of dust and plaster and fine-chopped splinters. Babylon had fallen for the last time.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

In the shadow of a city wall, where men had fallen in the battles of ”Intolerance,” a small band of players were enacting a scene from a great drama. There were only a few in the group, and they—already hidden away as if in a corner of the ruins of some old Pompeii, were further protected from the gaze of the curious by canvas reflectors. There I found David W. Griffith, shortly after his return from Europe’s battlefields, directing a scene in the shadow of Babylon’s wall. With him were Lillian and Dorothy Gish, apparently none the worse in youthful sweetness, health, and charm for their experiences in bomb-frightened London and amid the shattered ruins of Belgium and France, and with them Bobby Harron, camera-genius Bitzer, George Siegemann, and others. It was just a small particle of a scene ; but the production of which it was a part is expected to be greater than the story of Babylon, greater than “The Birth of a Nation,” for it was a bit of Griffith’s forthcoming production based on the most stupendous drama of all history — the present war.

DW Griffith in France 1917 D. W. Griffith, American film master
DW Griffith in France 1917

After eight months spent at the front, after hours and days in the very frontline trenches, Mr. Griffith returned to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to complete his undertaking. He was a more rugged Griffith than the man who went over to London nearly two years ago to stage “Intolerance” there. He was more serious. Having done what he modestly calls his “bit,” Mr. Griffith came home, bringing with him the precious prize of eighty thousand feet of film, the only motion pictures taken at the fronts with the exception of the official war pictures taken by the allied governments and preserved for a permanent record of the events of the struggle. Mr. Griffith went to England to stage his “Intolerance’ with no thought of the work he finally undertook. It was at the request of titled personages who saw “Intolerance” and suggested that he might do something to aid in the world’s charity work that turned his attention from private business, and, armed with unheard of passports to the front, set forth on his greatest venture.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

Not primarily for personal gain were those pictures taken. They will form the background of a great photo drama—or perhaps several photo dramas, a part of the proceeds of which are to be donated to the allied relief funds.

“The man who sees the war at first hand,” declared Mr. Griffith, “forgets that he ever had any petty ambitions of his own. He feels that this is the one great thing which is going on in the whole world. Beside that, nothing much matters now.”

It is, in fact, with great difficulty that one can get the noted film director to speak of his own work, in which he is now so engrossed. It developed, withal, that he was the first American to get into the first-line trenches in France.

Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 5

“I was within fifty yards of the boches on the Ypres front at one time,” he said. “How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t realize what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. At one time we were inside a dugout with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes. One of our own cameras, in fact, was standing in a position exposed to fire when a shell exploded, and—but that is a story which will be told later.

Griffith and the Great War 6
Griffith and the Great War 6

I wore the war helmet and the gas mask, for we were within reach of the poison-gas grenades of the enemy. We witnessed and barely missed personal contact with the horrors of liquid fire; we passed hours among bursting shells, and had on eight occasions experienced the dangers of German aerial raids in London. Four of these times we were caught in the street in great peril of the rain of fire. Only a few weeks ago I was on the firing line in Flanders, where the bloodiest of the recent furious fighting took place, and it will give you some idea of the intensity of the contest to know that in the short space of time since I left it is estimated that in the small sector where my headquarters were established there have been between sixty and a hundred thousand casualties.

Griffith and the Great War 2
Griffith and the Great War 2

“It is very difficult getting into the front-line trenches, not so much from physical as from official obstacles. But letters from the great ones in England to the great ones in France made our path comparatively smooth.”

Mr. Griffith had the honor of being summoned to appear before the King and Queen of England, but he was in the midst of operations in France at the time, and could not leave. On his return to England, however, he was presented to the queen. Mr. Griffith’s position in England was unusual. He was given the assistance of the British government in making his pictures, and he and his camera man were permitted in territory denied to all correspondents. In London, he had the cooperation of the most distinguished women of King George’s court, many of whom have played an active part in his big charity production. Such notables as Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duchess of Rutland ; Miss Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of the late prime minister, and the Princess of Monaco are all seen frequently in the film, their work gladly offered because the ultimate purpose of the film was for war relief funds. Mr. Griffith’s own perspective, after seeing so much of the actualities of war, includes both the awful elements and the hopeful significances which are to arise. But let him give his impressions of the throbbing march of events in his own words:

Griffith and the Great War 4
Griffith and the Great War 4

“Vimy Ridge in the spring, Ypres on that memorable September 19th, Arras —I saw those. What I saw in detail, I cannot tell, for my pledged word forbids. Without that restriction, I would not want to tell. “My ‘close-up’ of the war front is a blur of conflict, horrors, heroism, terror, sublimity — and promise. When you see the physically half dead, the mentally obscured thousands of men from the cities and slums who are shortly transformed into real men with real minds by the process of discipline and the implanting of the consuming lesson of devotion, courage, and true patriotism, you see that the war is not all unblessed. This war will, in many ways, liberate the world from itself—its worst self.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

“Speaking of the salvage of war, we may consider the fact that the death rate is now five per cent. What then of the ninety-five per cent of the men who return home? These are the men who have been through the fusing process of the melting pot of trench life. We may expect these men to return to their homes and their governments demanding a more sensible world, and being big and strong enough to make their demands respected.”

Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

In the film production which he has made in the past, Mr. Griffith has proven to be a master of dramatic technique, which includes the handling of that difficult attribute—suspense. It is extremely fitting, therefore, that he should realize the dramatic values of this, the greatest drama which has yet happened. “It is a drama at the front,” he said, “for suspense is the keynote of all dramas, and the suspense at the front makes it the drama of dramas.

It gives you a dry, nervous choking; you are taut, strung tight with intricate emotions, your whole being involved at every move.”

Griffith and the Great War 1
Griffith and the Great War 1

The producer described with picturesque vividness an experience on one of the fronts where he had journeyed to take pictures : “There was a shell broken forest where we were to meet some men at the edge of the woods. We went by the sixteen-inch guns ; then the nine-inch, the six-inch, and the eighteen-pounders, the latter, of course, the nearest to the first line. Over our heads was a British plane, and the batteries were going like the furies of hell. As the day passed, we saw countless thousands of men spread over the fields as thick as the grass would have been had there been any grass. Suddenly where the men were there were no men ; they had disappeared in the trenches and communications. “We advanced to a position where there had been a crossroads and farm, but now all was obliterated in a mass of shell holes, bricks, and dust. As the shells fell, and we made slow time, there came an awful feeling of fear and a desire to go back. But no one went back, for that would have required even greater courage. On the other side of the wood, a party, including our friends, advanced. When the shells came faster, we broke for an old pill box. It was hit, and some of our party were hurt, but the shelter held. ”Then a shell broke back of the other group. A rain of shrapnel came down, and the little group divided for greater safety. We had a desire to shout at our friends to go back, but a shout could not be heard amid the awful scream of the shells. The men in the little party continued to advance. Half a dozen big shells broke, and suddenly men and battery were all obliterated. The rest was like a nightmare, with the awful sickening feeling of death near at hand. We mourned our two men. “When we had returned later to the rear, the discovery was made that our two men had been warned against going out with the party. An old war-worn captain exclaimed: I told you this morning that your people should not have gone into that wood. The boches do not like any one to walk in that wood “

Lillian Gish - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

After Mr. Griffith had talked of the war, his party moved to a little house across the street from the “Intolerance” settings, where the producer, together with several Frenchmen, Austrians, and Germans, who of necessity are engaged in completing the war productions, pored over hundreds of war photographs taken by a Los Angeles correspondent who had spent much time in Germany, Poland, and Russia during the early periods of the war. This study of the enemy is of extreme importance, in view of the matter of costuming of accurate details of rank, and a thousand and one other things which must be taken into consideration in the completion of a tremendous spectacle of gripping realism such as the material of this conflict must furnish. Then the party again took up its work of making pictures, this time at a pretty little garden exterior, constructed on one of the gently sloping hills a few hundred yards back of the Babylonian elephants and tottering walls. A crew of carpenters and scenic artists were removing from the vast wreckage of the time-worn settings bits of plastered boards and canvas and fastening them up to complete the exterior of what might pass for a charming little country house in Belgium. Here Dorothy and Lillian Gish shortly appeared, to sit down on the sunburned slope of the hill and wait for their scenes, which were to match up with pictures made in a ruined city of Flanders. Dorothy sighed a sigh of complete peace and relaxation as she sat with her sister and the mother of the celebrated actresses, Mrs. M. R. Gish. ”Oh, isn’t it good to be back here again !” the little lady exclaimed, with a genuineness of expression which revealed her true feelings at being able to sit down, safe and sound, on a sunny hillside in California and never have to go back again to the terrifying air raids in London and the pitiful sights in the towns of Belgium and France.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

“I want to settle down on a farm in southern California.” Was Dorothy’s heartfelt wish. Lillian spoke up and told of Dorothy’s fright during the air raids in London.

“We were on the third floor of a family hotel,” said Lillian, and every time there was an unusual commotion outside or in the hotel, the people in adjoining apartments declared they could hear Dorothy’s knees shaking above the din and clatter of the bombing.

“No book that I have read,” declared Lillian, “has portrayed the full horror of war. It would take a superhuman writer to picture it. “The English did nothing but three cheer the American boys who first arrived, from start to finish. Naturally, as we were among the few Americans in London at this time, we were wildly excited, but those English folks showed ever bit as much enthusiasm as we did. We were in London on the day of a “parade by the first contingent of American soldiers, and the feeling displayed by the English people disproved all that has ever been told of the staid and unsentimental English.”

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“It was that way in Paris, too,” Mr. Griffith added. “While a year ago Paris was a gloomy place, filled with mourners, yet at the time of our later visit, the arrival of the American soldiers had had the effect of making every one cheerful again.”

”London displays considerably more of a war spirit than does Paris,” Lillian continued. “In both cities, however, it is considered rather poor taste to wear fine clothes, or to display luxury. We did not see a really well gowned woman throughout all our travels about Europe. In Paris, every third woman wears mourning, while in London nearly every man is in uniform. They are using men that you would think had passed the age for military service. These middle-aged men, of course, are not sent to the trenches. The only amusement in London is the theater. There are no dances or society dinners.”

Dorothy Gish described the return of their party on a camouflaged ship; one, she says,  ‘daubed with every color of paint you could think of. Several times on the return trip over the Atlantic we were ordered to dress and adjust life belts, but nothing happened in the way of a U-boat attack. Of course the very thought of submarines was terrible, but after going through the air raids in London nothing was as bad, even being within range of the guns, as it was in Belgium.”

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – The Hearts of The World

Lillian Gish, with a far-away and wistful look in her eyes, expressed her sympathy for the soldiers of America and the Allies who are now going into those shell-torn areas which she saw on the French and Belgian front. “I never thought or dreamed of the actuality of warfare, and I hold the hope so often expressed by the English people, that America’s entrance into the war spells an early victory.”

While the scenes were in preparation, Mr. Griffith moved about among the ruins of “Intolerance,” not unlike the devastated cities of Belgium and France, and again reflected over his experiencesof the past ten months.

”My most dangerous moment,” he said, “was at a time when I was under the guidance of a young British officer who was extremely proud of the lacquer on his boots. He wanted to avoid the mud in the trenches, so we walked outside, and ultimately had occasion to examine a map of the district we were in. This evidently attracted the attention of the Germans, who supposed we were deciding upon a site for a gun, for they at once began ‘strafing’ us. A ‘dud’—that is, a shell which doesn’t explode — dropped within five feet of us, and then the rattle of artillery came with deafening proximity until we found our way back to the trenches and rolled in, boots and all, glad to seek safety in the mud.”

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918
DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

Though Mr. Griffith did not disclose the exact nature of the films which are now being completed, it is evident that they will furnish a valuable record ; for they will contain views of every kind of mechanical device used in the present war. The spectator will know everything there is to know about the fighting devices of this war; aeroplanes, tanks, blimps, and trenches. Every position of danger, every vantage of attack, will be presented in the first production, which is to be for charity. A part of the proceeds, by the way, will go to blind soldiers and to sailors injured in the trawlers, who, Mr. Griffith declares, have one of the nastiest, meanest jobs of the whole war, taking their lives in their hands every time they venture half a mile from shore, and seldom receiving relief money for their wounded.

Griffith and the Great War 3
Griffith and the Great War 3

While the work of completing the film spectacles goes on at the romantic old spot where Babylon fell, the film producer walks among the ruins which recall those of the actual fighting front. And he is glad to have returned. But there is ever present a spirit of abstraction— a thought of what is going on over there, and a dream of what is going to come out of it all.

“There can be but one result,” he asserted, with intense earnestness. “It may be a long war. It promises to be a long war. But the Germans are defeated now, and will ultimately be conquered. It will be the beginning of the birth of a new world.”

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – Hearts of the World

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Hollywood: The Golden Era by Jack Spears (1971)

Hollywood: The Golden Era

In a series of colorful excursions into the golden era of Hollywood, Jack Spears nostalgically recaptures the romance of motion pictures from silents to Cinerama. Hollywood: The Golden Era is a collection of sprightly, intelligent, and entertaining essays on motion picture history and film personalities that will delight every fan.

Triangle Studios Banner

Fine Arts was in financial hot water at the time. To meet the needs of his distribution contract with Triangle (in which he was partnered with Thomas H. Ince and Mack Sennett), Griffith had set up several units turning out cheap program pictures. Production details were left to his story editor, Frank E. Woods, and a group of promising young directors, mostly Griffith protégés — Chester Withey, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning, Paul Powell, Elmer Clifton, and Donald Crisp. With a fortune sunk in the unpopular Intolerance, Griffith was harassed with financial and legal problems which kept him absent from California for months at a time. In March, 1917, he sailed for England with Lillian Gish and her mother to make a propaganda picture for the Allies, Hearts of the World.

The Fine Arts studio was a collection of bungalows and barn-like structures at the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, and Colleen (Moore) and her grandmother rented a small house a half-block away. Another Fine Arts starlet, Carmel Myers, lived nearby, and the two would walk to work each morning, giggling and chattering about the handsome leading men. At the studio she met a number of other promising youngsters — Pauline Starke, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Mildred Harris (with whom she shared a tiny dressing room), as well as such established stars as Lillian and Dorothy GIsh, Robert Harron, and Constance Talmadge.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

After a hurried trip to California, where his Fine Arts Company had collapsed in bankruptcy, Griffith returned to England for The Movies of World War I. In March, 1917, accompanied by Lillian Gish and her mother.

Two months later they were joined by cameraman G. W. Bitzer (whose German background was the subject of an exhaustive security check), Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and several other performers. Another passenger on their ship was General Pershing. Hearts of the World was partially filmed in Great Britain and France, but most of it was shot later in Hollywood.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

The Gish girls were terrified by the air raids in London and Cambridge, but were enormously heartened by the courage and determination of the British people. In France some scenes were made at Compiegne and Senlis, only a few miles from the front and within sound of enemy guns. The ruined villages, strewn with the debris of war and human suffering, made Impressive backgrounds. Griffith and Bitzer waded the mud of the front-line trenches to shoot authentic scenes, but most of these were found to be unusable. The director was lectured by a British officer for exposing himself to enemy fire—or so the publicity releases said.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

By the time of its premiere in New York on April 4, 1918, much of the propaganda value of Hearts of the World had been lost. Its now familiar plot was trite and sentimental, and much footage was given to a commonplace love story (there was even a mild triangle). The war scenes, although rather sketchy, were extremely realistic and well constructed—and also contained some stock shots from a German propaganda picture, for which Griffith had paid $16,000.

Lillian in the hands of a German - Hearts of The World
Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

A typical Griffith climax had a last minute rescue of the girl from the Huns by her soldier sweetheart. Lillian Gish scored a great personal triumph as the distraught heroine of Hearts of the World, She had an unforgettable scene In which, dazed and carrying her wedding dress, she wanders among the village ruins and shell-pocked fields. Robert Harron was fine as the sensitive American artist who Is so stirred by the war that he enlists In the French army, and Dorothy Gish scored as “The Little Disturber,” a comic role with many moments reminiscent of Mae Marsh In The Birth of a Nation.

Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World

Erich von Strohelm was assistant director and technical director, and may be glimpsed in a few scenes as a German officer. George Siegmann, who had menaced Lillian Gish In The Birth of a Nation, was the loathsome Von Strohm, a prototype of the Hun propaganda beast. Hearts of the World was originally shown In better theatersat Increased admissions up to $1.50. It was not seen in smaller towns and theaters until mid-1919, six months after the Armistice, when war-weary audiences gave it an indifferent reception.

By that time Griffith had reluctantly agreed, at Adolph Zukor’s urging, to cut out four reels—mostly scenes that would arouse hatred for the Germans—which gave it an uneven tempo. On the basis of reconstructed prints of the original twelve-reel version, Hearts of the World has come to be recognized as a fine and sensitive, if unappreciated, Griffith picture.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

Griffith shot 86,000 feet of film for Hearts of the World, and some of the unused footage was incorporated into three other war films which he made — The Great Love and The Greatest Thing in Life, both starring Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, and The Girl Who Stayed at Home, with Bobby Harron, Richard Barthelmess, Carol Dempster, and Clarine Seymour.

motion picture lobby card for the greatest thing in life (library of congress)

The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron - Artcraft Poster
The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron – Artcraft Poster

The Great Love (’18) was about a Canadian soldier who falls in love with an English girl. While he is at the front she marries a man who turns out to be a German spy. The picture also purported, as Griffith said, “to show the remarkable transition of the butterfly life of British society to that of stern, sincere, hard workers in the great cause of winning the war.” He induced several members of royalty and nobility—including Queen Alexandra, Lady Diana Manners, Lady Elizabeth Asquith, and Countess Maserine—to make token  ppearances.

motion picture lobby card for the greatest thing in life cve detail2 (library of congress)

The Greatest Thing in Life (’18), which Lillian Gish believes to have been Griffith’s best picture, showed how war brought together a conceited young soldier and an idealistic girl devoted to a worthless man. It contained a famous scene in which a white soldier kisses the cheek of a dying Negro soldier. Griffith was accused by cynical critics of an insincere attempt to offset the racial bigotry of The Birth of a Nation.

Because of the lingering effects of anti-German propaganda in America, these films were not entirely successful. They helped pave the way for John Ford’s Four Sons (’28), which aroused pro-German sympathy with Its story of a Rhine mother who sacrifices three of four sons to Ludendorff’s war machine, and Fred Niblo’s The Enemy (’28), in which Lillian Gish played a young Austrian bride to whom the war brings tragedy and intolerable hardships. Sympathy for the Germans was also reflected in such lesser pictures as Young Eagles (’30), in which a German ace was depicted as an honorable enemy who kills only through patriotic motives, and Dog of the Regiment (’27), in which a German girl and an American boy are sweethearts before the war. Later, he becomes a flying officer and is shot down near her farm. The girl (and Rin-Tin-Tin) help him to escape, and the lovers are reunited after the Armistice.

“Women can be good directors,” Frances Marion said. “Ida Lupino has proved that—but there are too many factions in the studios that believe otherwise.” She regrets that Hollywood quickly forgot the competent movies made before 1920 by such women directors as Lois Weber, Alice Blache, Ida May Park, Elsie Jane Wilson, Mrs. Sidney Drew, and later by Dorothy Arzner. Lillian Gish also tried her hand at directing, and so did several other early actresses—Cleo Ridgely, Grace Cunard, Helen Holmes and Mabel Normand. “It was a wonderful era of happy-go-lucky togetherness,” Miss Marion says.

Jack Spears (1971)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Hollywood: the Golden Era - by Jack Spears (1971)
Hollywood: the Golden Era – by Jack Spears (1971)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

LizBits – Nine Pine Street – By Neilson Caplain (October, 2002)

The Lizzie Borden Quarterly (2002)

— The Bibliographic Borden —

1930 promo ccc v

LizBits – Nine Pine Street

By Neilson Caplain (October, 2002)


She was dynamite at the box office, the greatest star in the early days of film-making. David Belasco called her the most beautiful blond in the world. John Barrymore paid her the ultimate compliment for an actor. He said she was the most exquisite, enchanting actress he had ever seen. And so it was with hushed anticipation that the audience awaited Lillian Gish’s appearance in the play Nine Pine Street.

Playbill Lillian Gish - Nine Pine Street 1933 NYC

The opening was on a balmy spring evening, May 31, 1933, at the Longacre Theater on Broadway in New York City. It was one of Miss Gish’s first performances in a live acting play. The authors were John Colton and Carlton Miles, based on a play by William Miles and Donald Blackwell.


Lillian took the part of a renamed Lizzie Borden, guilty of murdering her father because of the marriage to his second wife. The action took place in New Bedford, the city where Lizzie’s court appearance took place in real life. The time is set in the years 1886 to 1907. In addition to the star, there were fifteen supporting actors appearing in six scenes.


Unfortunately Nine Pine Street was not a smashing success. It ran for less than two months, only forty-nine performances. Nevertheless the critics acclaimed the acting by Miss Gish. One critic wrote, “when she comes down the stairs, after the first utterly noiseless murder, the sad-iron wrapped in her guilty apron, she is an appalling sight, wracked, and almost nauseated at her own deed … at the second slaying it is with an overwhelming sense of an inescapable fate. It is an extraordinary performance, taut, almost trance-like in its power, and oppressive, with a sort of sultry brilliance.”

It is interesting to note that the program booklet for Nine Pine Street highlighted four full-page  advertisements for cigarettes. Each featured young ladies with cigarette in hand. In those days it was fashionable for women to smoke and the ads appealed to a growing market. The cover is adorned with a wistful picture of the star. She appears not unlike the real Lizzie. More than ten years later Gish was still thinking of a movie based on the play. Unfortunately, such plans were never brought to fruition.

Lillian Gish penned two autobiographies. Several others told the story of her life in published books. She was featured in magazine articles and numerous interviews. There is no dearth of information surrounding the career of this actress. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, October 4, 1893. Her sister, Dorothy, also a well-known actress of the day, was born five years later.

Their father was James Leigh DeGuiche, later changed to Gish. Their mother was Mary Robinson McDonnell.


Separated from his wife, James Gish suffered from alcoholism. He died in an institution for the insane when only 36 years of age. In the early days Mrs. Gish supported her two girls by acting and later by opening a candy store, and finally as a manager for a catering business. In return, for the rest of her life she received close, caring and loving attention from her two daughters. Lillian began her acting career as a youngster, barely nine years old.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

Throughout her long professional life it is said she rarely missed a day because of illness or egomania. With her sister Dorothy she played the innocent waif buffeted by cruel circumstances. Around 1913 she went to Hollywood where her roles were frail and saintly victims in the one-reel melodramas that were very popular at the time. Having caught the eye of the noted director, D.W. Griffith she was given more important parts to play. In the year 1912 she acted in no less than thirteen movies, the following year in sixteen.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.


Her career had a jump-start with her part in Birth of a Nation. Despite its rampant racism, not unusual before the outbreak of the first World War, that film became an instant success. In 1915 it was brought to Broadway and ran an unprecedented forty-four weeks.

With Griffith she was launched to great stardom through the twenties and world-wide acclaim the rest of her life. Griffith was her mentor and her great love. She remained his friend and defender, even during his decline as a director in the nineteen thirties and his encroaching alcoholism. Under his aegis she played in a great many of his pictures.


In Intolerance, a movie bigger than any that preceded it, she acted as his assistant in designing sets, helping lighting and cutting, research and in writing advertisements.

In 1920 her sister Dorothy became a married woman by eloping with actor James Rennie, but Lillian considered marriage “straight-laced and domineering.”

In the years that followed Lillian’s career became even more triumphant. After playing the lead in Orphans of the Storm she was invited to the White House for lunch with President Warren G. Harding.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

As her power at the box office waxed the career of Griffith waned. Lillian then affiliated with a company headed by Charles H. Duell where she became an executive, as well leading lady, with her own business office. She was the first American star to make a movie in Italy where she filmed The White Sister. The premiere in New York attracted such luminaries as the Governor of New York, Al Smith, and the socialite Vandebilts and Belmonts. The film ran for six months at special prices on Broadway, and even longer at popular prices.

In the mid-twenties there were rumors of a romance with Charles Duell. Lillian’s unblemished reputation was compromised by a front-page scandal that involved years of litigation. In the end she emerged victorious, wealthy, and her honor intact.

Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director 2
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director
Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

Already celebrated as a great actress, as a result of the trial’s intense publicity, Lilian now commanded even greater box office attraction.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

Lillian fell in love with George Jean Nathan and it was as his companion that she secured her place among the elite of America’s arts and letters in the twenties and thirties.

In 1925 she negotiated an enviable contract with MGM at a salary of $800,000.00 for six pictures and under which she was permitted to exercise her own choice of director and cast. Ever intelligent and strong-willed she exerted considerable control over her films. Her first picture Boheme was a spectacular success and proved to be the most profitable of MGAfs releases in 1925 and 1926.

In the latter year Mary Gish, Lillian’s mother, suffered a stroke while in Europe. Lillian, always the loving and caring daughter hurried to the continent. Mary made a good recovery, and twenty years after she was still a beautiful lady. She died September 17, 1948.


Lillian considered silent movies the purest form of the art and was averse to accepting roles in the new “talkies.” She was the personification of the silent film, usually playing the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life. However, by 1927 sound film finally took over the industry.

Miss Gish’s first talking role was as the star in One Romantic Night. Although the movie proved to be a flop, The New York Times reported that because Lillian’s voice recorded so well “… it causes her screen work to be far more interesting than it was in silent productions.”

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron
George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Lillian had a long and close association with George Jean Nathan. At about this time rumors were rife that they were about to be married. She put an end to the gossip with the statement that “Marriage is a career. I have preferred a stage career rather than amarriage career.” George’s name was the last to be romantically linked to that of Lillian Gish. She began her stage career with three appearances before acting in Nine Pine Street. Although the play could not be counted as a success, her portrayal of the Lizzie character, so different than her usual roles, united the critics in her praise, citing her strong, deep, commanding voice and facial expressions.

Playbill Lillian Gish - Nine Pine Street 1933 NYC

With Nine Pine Street Lillian Gish proved her ability to adjust to the demands of live theater. From that time onwards she went from success to success in play after play. In 1940 she accepted the lead in the Chicago company of Life With Father which ran for an unprecedented sixty-six weeks.

In 1949 she made her first appearance, followed by many others, on television. Her last appearance on the stage was in 1975, the last in motion pictures was in 1987 when she co-starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August. Her first movie in Technicolor was Duel in the Sun (1946) in which she shared leads with such luminaries as Gregory Peck and Lionel Barrymore.

She had a longer life on the boards and on the silver screen than any other actress. Although considered less popular than Norma Talmadge or Mary Pickford, her claim for popularity depended entirely on her ability as an actress.

Lillian’s beloved sister, Dorothy, her constant companion, died in 1966 at a clinic in Rapallo, Italy. Her final years were sad, weak, and depressed. In life she was always the fun-loving sister as contrasted with Lillian’s dedication, and discipline.

first time on lecture platform 1932

With the passing years Lillian’s professional activities multiplied. She crisscrossed the country giving lectures. At one point she had seventeen engagements in the short space of six weeks, indefatigably doing her part in raising interest in the silent screen.

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

Her final bow to Broadway was a singing part in a musical review in 1986. In that year she was in fine health, despite two previous hip operations. At age 92 she had a small part in a movie by Alan Alda.

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

As a long-time Republican supporter Lillian exchanged birthday greetings with President Eisenhower. She visited Mamie at the White House and thereafter the two became fast friends. She supported the campaign of Richard Nixon, and was on a first name basis with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

1982 DC Ronald Reagan - Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)
1982 DC Ronald Reagan – Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)

There is this that has to be said in assessing Lillian’s career and character: She joined the America First Committee, opposing America’s involvement in World War II. She thereby became associated with individuals tainted by expressions of racism and anti-Semitism, and support of fascism and Hitler’s Germany.

WWII Scribners COMMENTATOR Magazine 1941 War Propaganda
WWII Scribners COMMENTATOR Magazine 1941 War Propaganda

Previously many of her friends and associates had expressed derogatory sentiments, without affecting her friendship with them. But with it all the taint of racism was never publicly attributed to the actress.

Miss Gish was the recipient of many honors. She was awarded honorary degrees at three colleges. She received an Academy Award nomination in 1946 and an honorary Oscar in 1971. She was called “the first lady of the screen” when she was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute in 1984. She was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1982.

Lillian Gish Kennedy Center 1983 RPP

The following year France bestowed on her the Medaille de Commandeur des Arts and Lettres. She won the Best Actress Award by the National Board of Review.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

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Miss Lillian Gish’s films …

An Intimate Story of the Gish PART II – (Movie Weekly) March 25 1922

An Intimate Story of the Gish PART II – (Movie Weekly) March 25 1922 …

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the second instalment of the interesting story of the Gish Girls’ careers. You will recall that the last article concluded with Dorothy and Lillian meeting Mary Pickford and the rest of the Pickford family. Don’, miss this most fascinating story, which, for the first time in any publication, appears in “Movie Weekly.”

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World


RECOLLECTIONS of their childhood days with the Pickford-Smiths, and stories of the good times they had when they all lived. together in a house on Thirty Seventh Street made Lillian and Dorothy Gish recall other incidents about Mary Pickford, and how, through her, they became movie actresses.

Mildred Harris, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mary Robinson McConnell (Gish) and Dorothy Gish
Mildred Harris, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mary Robinson McConnell (Gish) and Dorothy Gish

“Getting into the movies was not a very intricate business a dozen years ago,” Lillian continued. The Gishes and the Pickfords were then moving about New· York, living uptown on the west side for a time, until the Gishes went on the road again, leaving Mary, Lottie and Jack in New York. It was during one of these tours that Dorothy fell ill, the engagement was cancelled, and the family came north. When they reached New York, they found that Mary Pickford was playing in the movies.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

” ‘What’ on eatth can she see in the movies?’ we asked each other,” said Dorothy. “We went to the studio to see her and to find out what it was all about. She was playing in one of the Biograph productions with D. W. Griffith and she introduced us to him. He asked us to play an extra role in one of his productions, and that was the way we began.”


“”We were rather late in joining the Biograph company.” Lillian explained. “Biograph was reaching the end of its career and we played in a few of the productions there. Then Mary was engaged by Belasco to play opposite Ernest Truex in ‘The Good Little Devil,’ and I was engaged to play one of the fairies. I stayed with Mary until the spring, when I found the climate did not agree with me and we decided to go to the Coast to play in Mr. Griffith’s Triangle stock company.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team