Lillian Gish By Kevin Brownlow (San Francisco Cine – 1985)

San Francisco Cine – 1985

Lillian Gish

By Kevin Brownlow

If you read in a Victorian novel that an actress who began her career in the early 1800s was still going strong in 1884, you would dismiss it as absurd. But transfer the century to our own, and the dates correspond to the career of Lillian Gish. She made her first appearance on the stage in 1901 at the age of five—as Baby Lillian—acted in her first film in 1912. and recently finished a picture that will be released this year. Lillian Gish is no ordinary actress: by common consent, she is one of the greatest of this century – You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Meeting her is an exhilarating experience, for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed— and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith” and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history.

She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him “the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Ration (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921). The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Right of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill (1958), and A Wedding (1978). “We used to laugh about films in the early days,” she says. “We used to call them flickers. Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again. The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.'”

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

It was this ideal, this integrity, that made compromise so difficult for both of them. The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.”

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya (Harris)
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya (Harris)

Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance offscreen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.

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

In the film Hearts of the World she gives a heartbreaking performance as a shell-shocked girl who wanders the battlefield, in search of her lover, carrying her wedding dress. The film established her uncanny ability to portray terror and hysteria, and it established, too, the warmth and poignancy she could bring to love scenes. But Hearts of the World paled by comparison with the next major production of the partnership. Broken Blossoms (1919) had none of the usual Griffith trademarks—no cast of thousands, no epic sets. It was based on a story by Thomas Burke about the love of a Chinese man for a twelve-year-old girl. At first, Lillian Gish fought against playing the role. She offered to work with a child of the right age, but felt she couldn’t possibly play the part herself. Griffith insisted that only she could handle the emotional scenes. How right he was. Lillian Gish played the child (changed to a fifteen-year-old) with conviction. She invested the role with a quality so powerful and disturbing that a journalist—watching the filming of the scene where the girl hides in a closet as her father smashes the door with an ax—was overwhelmed: She pressed her body closer to the wall—hugged it, threw her arms high above her head, dug her fingers into the plaster. A trickle of dust fell from beneath her nails. She screamed, a high-pitched, terrifying sound, a cry of fear and anguish. Then she turned and faced the camera.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

It was the real thing. Lillian Gish was there, not ten feet from the camera, but her mind was somewhere else —somewhere in a dark closet. Tears were streaming from her eyes. Her face twitched and worked in fear. . . . I have always considered myself hardboiled, but I sat there with my eyes popping out.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919

Lillian Gish came into pictures by accident. In 1912, she and her sister, Dorothy, visited the Biograph Studios in New York because they heard that their friend Gladys Smith was working there. (Gladys Smith had changed her name to Mary Pickford.) In the lobby, the sisters met a hawk-faced young man who asked them if they could act. “I thought his name was Mr. Biograph. He seemed to be the owner of the place. Dorothy said, ‘Sir, we are of the legitimate theater.'”

An Unseen Enemy - Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

“‘Well,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean reading lines, I mean, can you act?’ We didn’t know what he meant. He said, ‘Come upstairs.’ We went up there where all the actors were waiting and he rehearsed a story about two girls who are trapped by burglars, and the burglars are shooting at them. We watched the other actors to see what they were doing and we were smart enough to take our cues from them. Finally, at the climax, the man took a 22 revolver out of his pocket and started shooting at the ceiling and chasing us around the studio. We thought we were in a madhouse.” The young director was D.W. Griffith, and the film became An Unseen Enemy, the first of many one- and two-reelers to feature Lillian Gish. Thus her career began before the advent of the feature film. It was Griffith who helped to pioneer the feature film in the United States—and it was his epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) that ensured its survival. I saw the rushes.” she said “Even at that early age. I was terribly interested in film, how it was made, what happened to it. I was in with the developing and printing of the film, the cutting of it, so I’d seen ‘The Clansman,’ as it was then called. The others hadn’t, and I was there that night the rest of the cast saw it for the first time.

I remember Henry B. Walthall, who played the Little Colonel: He just sat there, stunned by the effect of it. He and his sisters were from the South. Eventually they said, ‘It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen or ever imagined.'”

When Griffith visited England during the First World War, ostensibly to arrange for the premiere of his 1916 epic. Intolerance, he began to prepare for a huge propaganda film to support the Allied cause. He brought over Lillian and Dorothy Gish, traveling in the company of their mother, to play the leads. The journey across the Atlantic was dangerous enough, with constant peril from U-boats, and their stay at the Savoy Hotel in London was enlivened by German bombing raids. But Griffith decided to take them to France, and there they saw the devastation of war at first hand.

“In one of the villages on the way up front from Senlis,” said Lillian Gish, “we saw a house that had been destroyed: bits and pieces of furniture and an old coffeepot on its side. What pictures it brought up, because everyone there had been killed. As we drove up in this car to places where they wouldn’t send trained nurses—they were valuable, actresses were a dime a dozen—we saw the astonished look on the faces of all the soldiers. They couldn’t believe that these people in civilian clothes—we were dressed as we were in the film—would be up there. And we were within range of the long-distance guns.”

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

When she worked with the young King Vidor on La Boheme, she astonished him with her dedication. He was not accustomed to actresses who prepared themselves so thoroughly for their parts. She felt that research was part of the job. As Mimi, she had to die of tuberculosis, so she asked  priest to take her to a hospital to talk to those who were really dying of the disease. She arrived on the set with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, and Vidor asked what she had done to herself. She replied that she had stopped drinking liquids for three days to give her lips the necessary dryness. When he shot the death scene, he decided to call “cut” only when he saw her gasp after holding her breath to simulate death.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish 1926 Mimi passed away ... (the last scene)

But nothing happened. She did not take a breath. “I began to be convinced that she was dying.” said Vidor. “I began to see the headlines in my mind: ‘Actress Plays Scene So Well She Actually Dies.’ I was afraid to cut the camera for a few moments. Finally, I did and I waited. Still no movement from Lillian John Gilbert bent over and whispered her name. Her eyes slowly opened. At last she look a deep breath, and I knew everything was all right. She had somehow managed to find a way to get along without breathing . . . visible breathing, anyway. We were all astounded and there was no one on the set whose eyes were dry.” Small wonder that Vidor said. “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

The qualities in which Lillian Gish is famous were exemplified in D.W. Griffith’s production of Way Down East. The picture was based on an old theatrical melodrama so lurid that when she read the play, she could hardly keep from laughing. It tells of Anna Moore, a country girl who visits ihe city and is seduced by a wealthy playboy by means of a mock marriage. Abandoned and destitute, she gives birth to a baby that dies soon afterward.

She wanders the countryside and finds a haven at a farm. But when her secret is discovered, she is turned out of the house. Staggering through a snowstorm, she collapses on the ice as it starts to break up, and is carried toward certain death over the falls. The farmer’s son, who loves her, races to the rescue, leaping from floe to floe and grasping her a split second before disaster. Griffith transformed this material into superb entertainment, and by her presence Lillian Gish gave the story a conviction and a poignancy no other actress could have provided.

“We filmed the baptism of Anna’s child at night,” she wrote in her autobiography, recently reissued, “in a corner of the studio, with the baby’s real father looking on. Anna is alone: the doctor has given up hope for her child. She resolves to baptize the infant herself. The baby was asleep, and. as we didn’t want to wake him, I barely whispered the words, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost …” as I touched the tiny temples. “There was only the sound of the turning camera. Then I heard a thud. The baby’s father had slumped to the floor in a faint. D.W. Griffith was crying. He waved his hand in front of his face to signify that he couldn’t talk. When he regained control of himself, he took me in his arms and said simply. ‘Thank you.'”

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

The film was made in and around Griffith’s Mamaroneck studio, on a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound. The winter was so severe that the Sound reportedly, froze over. For one scene, shot during a blizzard, three men lay on the ground, gripping the legs of the tripod while Billy Bitzer ground the camera and Lillian Gish staggered into the teeth of the storm. “My face was caked with a crust of snow,” she said, “and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm Mr. Griffith shouted, ‘Billy, move in! Get that face.'”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

On top of this, she had to shoot the icefloe scenes. One of her ideas for this sequence was to allow her hand and hair to trail in the water as she lay on the floe. “I was always having bright ideas and suffering for them,” she wrote. “After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long.”

Motion picture history is compounded of generous helpings of legend, and some historians have wondered if Lillian Gish has exaggerated her feature.

Lee Smith in the December 1921 issue of American Cinematographer, a technical journal that has never resorted to press agentry, described how the ice-floe sequence was shot:

We had doubles for both Miss Gish and Mr. Richard Barthelmess, but never used them. . . . Miss Gish was the gamest little woman in the world. It was really pathetic to see the forlorn little creature huddled on a block of ice and the men pushing it off into the stream, but she never complained nor seemed to fear. But the cold was bitter and Miss Gish was bareheaded and without a heavy outer coat, so that it was necessary at intervals to bring her in and get her warm. Sometimes when the ice wouldn’t behave she was almost helpless from cold, but she immediately reacted and never seemed lo suffer any great distress.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

“When you play virgins, you have to work hard. They’re all right for five minutes ; after that you have to work to hold the interest.” (Lillian Gish)

The films. Broken Blossom; and The Wind, were shown in a West End theater called the Dominion, built in 1929. Chaplin premiered City Lights there. The twenties decor is still intact, and, more important, there’s still a pit for the orchestra. I was very pessimistic about the size of the audience; I recalled seeing The Wind many years ago at the National Film Theatre with seven people. But our tribute averaged more than a thousand people at each of the four performances. As anyone who has tried to program silent films will agree, that is an astonishing turnout.

Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

II was also gratifying to see Lillian Gish’s name in huge letters on a marquee again, and to see the crowds gathering before each show with autograph books. The first night. Broken Blossoms was attended by some of the most famous names in the English theater, not only John Gielgud, but also Emlyn Williams, who played Richard Barthelmess’s part in the remake of Broken Blossoms. Silent star Bessie Love came to see her old friend; they had both been in Intolerance. They posed for pictures with Dame Anna Neagle, whose husband Herbert Wilcox directed Dorothy Gish in the silent era. Lillian -Gish introduced the film and supplied some of the background. She also explained the importance of the music. Carl Davis had arranged the original Louis Gottschalk score of 1919 (the Gish character’s theme, “White Blossom,” was composed by D.W Griffith himself). The audience watched the beautiful tinted print with rapt attention. The occasion was unmarred by those titters that so often wreck showings of silent films. One could feel the emotion, and the applause afterward was tremendous. “I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,” said one man, “but this was my greatest evening.” I hope he was there the following evening, for it was even more impressive. In her introduction, Lillian Gish left no doubt that The Wind was physically the most uncomfortable picture she had ever made —even worse than Way Down East. “I can stand cold,” she explained, “but not heat.” The exteriors were photographed in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, where it was seldom under 120 degrees. “I remember having to fix my makeup and I went to the car and I left part of the skin of my hand on the door handle. It was like picking up a red-hot poker. To create the windstorm, they used eight airplane engines blowing sand, smoke, and sawdust at me.”

MGM/UA allowed us to provide a new score for The Wind (which will also replace the 1928 Movietone recording in the television version). Carl Davis and arrangers Colin and David Matthews created a storm sequence of earsplitting volume. As one critic said, it was as though they had brought the hurricane into the theater. The effect of the film and the music pulverized the audience. Lillian Gish said it was the most exciting presentation of The Wind she had seen in years. Some people compared the experience to seeing Napoleon, and several found it even more powerful. The critic of the Daily Telegraph compared Gish to Sarah Bernhardt and that of the Guardian thought the director of The Wind, Victor Seastrom, was now on a level with D.W. Griffith.

Lillian Gish received a standing ovation, and days later people were still talking of her astonishing performance in the film.

“It was the film event of the year,” said George Perry of the Sunday Times. “Carl Davis’s music was incredible. It felt as though the theater was collapsing. It made Sensurround seem a crude gimmick. Lillian Gish’s performance was absolutely wonderful.”

1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France - Henri Langlois)
1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France – Henri Langlois)

We said farewell to Miss Gish at her hotel while she was busy packing. Her hair was down, and I have seldom seen her look so beautiful. All of us connected with the event were exhausted, but Lillian Gish was as full of vitality as ever. “When I get back to New York,” she joked, “I shall go to bed and I won’t get up until 1984. When you think of me, think of me horizontal.” When we think of her, we will think of her striding onto the stage of the Dominion to receive the acclamation of an audience that, thanks to her, has rediscovered its faith in the cinema.

Kevin Brownlow is a filmmaker and film historian. His books include The Parade’s Gone By and “Napoleon”: Abel Gance’s Silent Classic.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Our Animated Monthly of Movie News and Views – By Sally Roberts (Motion Picture Magazine 1919)

Motion Picture Magazine – February 1919

Our Animated Monthly of Movie News and Views

By Sally Roberts

It was a notable day in Los Angeles when the flu ban was lifted. Music entered the cafes, motion pictures held sway everywhere, all the theaters were redecorated, fumigated and had expanded their orchestras, and the studios showed awakening from the Rip Van Winkle sleep of nearly two months. We noticed Monroe Salisbury coming out after the first show of “Hugon the Mighty,” which was a firstnighter at the Superba. He looked mighty handsome in a costly velour bonnet and wide, floppy brown coat, belted loosely, and his tall figure swayed over slightly as he got down to the level of a five-foot blonde who was vivaciously asking questions about his picture.

Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918
Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918

Right next door, Dorothy Gish’s “Battling Jane” filled the house, and while the character was overdrawn; nevertheless, peals of laughter showed the approval of the audience, and their delight at seeing a motion picture comedy once more. By the way, Dorothy has. been in a sanitarium for weeks and, as she had to sleep six hours daily, besides putting in all night on the hay, she certainly made up for the enforced rest-cure by devilling the life out of everybody during the other waking hours. Her friends smuggled chocolates onto her window-sill, because she was restricted to about three articles of diet and balked rebelliously. When friend nurse turned her back, Dorothy hopped out like a brisk little bird, scooped up the candy-boxes and hid ’em till she got a chance to eat. In spite of all this, she recovered. Her trouble was not serious, just a little nervous breakdown from over work and society doin’s. It was hard to imagine this disciple of perpetuum mobile lying on her back for 18 hours daily.

Dorothy Gish - Motion Picture Classic (Jan-Aug 1919)-60

MaryPickford has her studio on the old Griffith lot, so these friends of early Biograph days are nearby and can hobnob at studio luncheons. Blanche Sweet has been working there also, but just ran off for a little New York trip. Anyway, the whole collection of blondes for once was united.

Snooping around the enclosed stages, we found Lillian Gish dying to the tune of Chopin’s Funeral March, played on a wheezy accordeon. She’s doing a Chinese play in which Dick Barthelmess plays male lead and Donald Crisp does the heavy. The latter broke a couple of small bones in his one foot during a scene, but as his active scenes had all been shot, he’s not compelled to walk during the others which follow and can go onwith the work. By the time healing is complete they will need him for the shaking of the tootsies in a grand finishing skirmish.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

Dorothy Gish persists in annoying mother and Lillian with her strange comb noises which are music to her ears

Motion Picture Magazine (Feb 1919) Lillian Dorothy and Mother
Motion Picture Magazine (Feb 1919) Lillian Dorothy and Mother
Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918 Film Poster
Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918 Film Poster

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The House Built Upon Sand – Filmed in The Gish Home (J.C. Jessen – 1916)

Motion Picture News – Vol. 14 No. 26 – December 30, 1916

In and Out of West Coast Studios

By J.C. Jessen (Los Angeles, Dec. 12)

BELIEVING a better characterization of the role taken by Lillian Gish in ” The House Built Upon Sands,” it was arranged this week to have a number of scenes made at the home of the Fine Art actress. A corps of electricians installed artificial lighting system in the Gish home, and the hundred thousand dollar bed-room suite rented for scenes in this production were used there. The antique is owned by General H. G. Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, and is known as the Madame Du-Barry suite. It is of French design and was brought to this city by the millionaire publisher.

A House Built Upon Sand

The entire Fine Arts studio is to be remade. Work was begun more than a week ago on the erection of a mammoth enclosed stage, and now Business Manager J. C. Epping gives out the statement that $50,000, are to be spent on improvements. The present enclosed stage will be converted into offices for the scenario department members, directors and heads of departments. A new paint shop, 30 by 50, scene dock 40 by 100 and other improvements are to be made.

A House Built Upon Sand

Back to Lillian Gish Home page


Dorothy and Mae Tell Secrets – By Will Rex (1916)

Film Players Herald and Movie Pictorial

February 1916

Dorothy and Mae Tell Secrets

By Will Rex


In my short, but varied career, I have spent many a pleasant day, but never one like the time I called on the two Triangle favorites, Dorothy Gish and Mae Marsh. Without a doubt they are two of the sweetest, most unsophisticated girls it has ever been my good fortune to meet. They just bubble over with girlishness. And jealousy? The farthest thing from their minds: Mae insists that Dorothy is the greatest little actress on the screen, and “Dot” vice versa. And that is something new in the film world-I know, I’ve been acting and producing for a good many years. Hearing that these two charming children-for that’s what they are-were in New York, and remembering how they used to be the life of the Biograph Company in the good, old days-I phoned, making an appointment with them. Unfortunately Miss Marsh was sick in bed-only a cold, fortunately, but Dorothy, who was acting as her nurse, promised to overlook a point, and arranged that I should see her. What other actress would do a thing like that? Nine out of ten-yes, ninety-nine out of a hundred would tearfully tell a sad tale of Miss Marsh’s illness, and then corner me and tell me the wonderful story of their ‘own lives. Not so, Miss Gish. She tucked in sick little Mae nice and “comfy” and then led me into her room. Of all the pretty pictures I have ever seen that was the prettiest, just her cute little head peeking from under the covers. After the usual greetings-remember I hadn’t seen either of these girls for over a year-I started my cross-examination.


Miss Marsh was the first one questioned; yes, it was the details of the “where-and-when” of her arrival on this wicked old world of ours.

“I was born in Madrid–”

I looked at her in surprise, “Why, I thought you were one of the original ‘Maids of America’!”

She smiled, “Oh, I mean Madrid, New Mexico. And that was nineteen years ago. Yes, that is my right age. Reading through the photoplay magazines I find that I am anything from thirteen to thirty, but nineteen is my right age-really.”

“Really,” !; echoed Miss Gish from the other side of the room.

“Now, Dorothy,” continued Mae, tell the kind man where and when this same wonderful event happened in the Gish family.”

The girl demurred, “Oh, you won’t believe me when I tell you!” ,

I crossed my heart and promised that I would. “It was in 1898, March 11th to be exact, that the stork passed over the Gish home and dropped me in. That was–”

I interrupted her, “I always thought that the Spanish-American War wasn’t the only important happening of ’98; now I know it.”

Dorothy Gish (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Dorothy Gish (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis)

She smiled, and continued, “That was in Dayton, Ohio, and–”

Another chance for an honest compliment came to me, and I made the most of it, making some gallant remark about the great people from Dayton, such as the Wright brothers and the Gish sisters. Dorothy blushed, and made me stop. I asked her when she first realized that she was beautiful and would make a success as an actress. Of course she denied her good looks-what famous beauty doesn’t? But Mae promptly came to her rescue and let me know just how beautiful Dorothy is. She didn’t have to tell me – I have eyes. For that matter, little Miss Marsh isn’t in the background. When the question of the beauty of the members of the “flicker world” comes in discussion you’ll always hear Mae’s name mentioned, and way-up near the top, too. “Well, if you must know,” blushed Dorothy, and when she blushes she’s adorable, “I’ll tell you, I was four years old at the time.” She laughed in triumph. “I certainly didn’t know then whether I was a scarecrow or an object of admiration. At that time I played ‘Little Willie’ in ‘East Lynne.’ Oh yes, I was in that awful melodrama, but my next play was even worse. Sister Lillian and I both were in that horrid show, ‘Her First False Step’!”

“Br-r-r,” I shivered, “Give me the papers or the che-i-i-Id!”

“Now, you stop or I’ll get real mad,” she pouted. I was properly reprimanded and promised to be good.

“Oh, Mr. Rex,” Mae eagerly broke in, “I was having a terribly exciting time then. Tell him about it, Dorothy,”

“Why, you know it better than I do,” complained little Miss Gish.

“But you must remember I am a sick girl,” begged Mae. “Be good and tell him.”

Dorothy promised to be good and tell me. “You see, it was like this: Mae and all the rest of the little Marshes, including Mamma Marsh, were living in San Francisco when they had the awful earthquake”-she shuddered-“and before you could count ten the whole family was homeless. Wasn’t that awful?” I nodded agreement,

“But brave Mrs. Marsh didn’t even get frightened. She gathered up everyone of her halfa-dozen children, and got them to a place of safety, Just think, they lived in a tent for over a month!

Wasn’t that awfully exciting?” Again I nodded.

“Oh, and it was so hard for poor Mrs. Marsh to find food to fill all the hungry little mouths. One day she went to the supply tent, and told one of the soldiers what she wanted. He wouldn’t believe that she was the mother of so many children, and didn’t want to give her the food, But she persuaded him that she was telling the truth, and the sentry was kind enough to turn his back so that she could get what she wanted, Wasn’t he kind, and oh, wasn’t Mrs. Marsh plucky?”

Still a third time I nodded.

“And all the time poor Mae was having this bad luck I was playing in those horrid melodramas. Why couldn’t I have been out on the Coast helping her?”

“Why?” I agreed, never asking how she, who was only a baby, could have helped.

“How long did you play in ‘those horrid melodramas’?” I asked.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 7

“Oh, not for long. You know Lillian and I soon left the stage and went to boarding school in Wheeling, West Virginia-the Allegheny Collegiate Institute. None of the girls there knew I was an actress-not even my room-mate! Wasn’t that funny?”

“Of course, you were a good girl in school?”

She looked at me in pained surprise. “Of course! Only, once I had to stay in after classes, and when I thought I had been there long enough, I started kicking away at the door, and the nasty old teacher just doubled my time. Now, wasn’t that mean?”

“Mean is no name for it,” I agreed.

She smiled approval of my remark, and then Miss Marsh spoke up. “When I was in school-the Convent of the Sacred Heart in California, I was always getting into trouble like that. Really, I was always innocent.” And she rolled her childish eyes.

“Be frank,” I insisted.

“Well, really I never did anything. Of course I was leader of the ‘gang,’ and put chewing gum in the teacher’s books, and threw black-board erasers at her, and forgot to study, and-oh, a lot of other things I’ve forgotten, but really I never did anything I shouldn’t!”

Miss Gish and I looked at each other and smiled.

“Oh, but that isn’t about moving pictures,” complained Dorothy, “tell him what you are doing now,”

“That doesn’t interest Mr. Rex,” was the reply, “does it?”

I said it did.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

“Well, I’ve just finished playing in ‘The Mother and the Law’ under the direction of Mr. Griffith, and I’m taking a little vacation now. Just as soon as I go back to the Triangle Coast Studios, I will start rehearsals in a picture under Mr. Ingraham’s direction. I understand, though, that the actual production of the picture will be staged in New York. Now, Dorothy, you tell what you are doing now.”

Thus ordered, the pretty little actress could do naught but reply. “At present I am playing opposite Owen Moore in ‘Betsy, the Joyous.’ That’s the working title of the film, but I don’t know what the real name will, be. Mr. Dwan is producing the picture, which is for the Triangle programme, as is ‘Jordan Is a Hard Road,’ which I just finished on the Coast.”

“Now for ancient history,” I laughed. “What was your first picture, and how did you get in it?”

“Oh, ,do you want that old story!”-and she sighed. “Three and a half years ago I went to visit Mary Pickford at the Biograph Studio. You know Mrs. Pickford, and Mary and Lottie and Jack, Mother and Lillian and I lived together for a short time when we were very small children. I had heard of Mary’s great screen success and called to see a picture in the making. Lillian was with me. Mary introduced us to Mr. Griffith, and soon after he signed us up. We’ve both been with him ever since. The first picture I remember playing in for him was ‘An Unseen Enemy’ with Lillian. Bobby Harron had the male lead. Mae’s first big success was ‘The Sands 0′ Dee,’ and Bobby played lead in that, too,”

An Unseen Enemy - Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

“Quite a boy, Bobby,” I remarked.

Instantly they both agreed. Lucky fellow, he, to have two such lovely girls to sing his praises. Why can’t we all be born so fortunate?

Both insist that Harron is one of our greatest actors, and I agree with them. In fact, all three of us have nearly the same opinion of the screen stars of today. Of course, modesty forbids my saying which actor they think is the greatest (?). Both girls are very fond of the work of Walthall and William S. Hart, while Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, the Talmadge girls, Bessie Barriscale attd Anita Stewart head the list of the actresses. Of the stage stars, both are of the opinion that no one can surpass Forbes, Robertson, and Jane Cowl and Mrs. Fiske came in for a lot of praise.

Going back to the Studio question, I asked Miss Marsh how she entered the film world.

“About four years ago my sister Lovey was playing for Mr. Griffith and after persuading Lovey for a long time she took me to the Studio one day. I was awfully lonesome and sat ‘way in the corner. Mr. Griffith must have wanted a woe-begone creature in one of his pictures for he soon gave me a job as extra, and then put me in stock. When he left Biograph to go with Majestic, I went with him. I played in hundreds of pictures, and love the work-especially my part in ‘The Birth of a Nation’,”

Mae Marsh Pictures Newspaper England

The conversation turned, and I asked the girls what their favorite hobbies were. Mae loves to sew, and read, and go driving in her big Chandler Six with Sister Lovey as chauffeur. Miss Gish told me that this car of Mae’s was a trick one. One day, she informed me, they were both coming from Mae’s house, when 10 and behold! the car started down the street, gracefully turned a corner, and then turned turtle in a vacant lot. Sounded to me almost like a Ford joke.

Dorothy spends most her spare time in the photoplay theatres, although she gambles a great dealplaying solitaire against herself. She, too, will soon be spinning around the roads in her machine, as she is about ready to buy a roadster. (Note to automobile salesmen: Miss Gish will let you know when she wants a car. You can’t persuade her to buy one till then!) It’s a wonder the girl isn’t afraid of the “gasoline buggies.” One of them injured her severely last Thanksgiving, and because of the accident one of her cute little toes has gone to the happy hunting grounds.

Changing the subject, we spoke of pets. “Mae has the’ cutest cat,” said Miss Dorothy, “and she has honored me by naming it after me. Oh, before. I forget it – she has a little pond in her back yard with gold fish swimming around. One day I saw Bobby Harron fishing in it, and–“

“Oh, Dorothy,” objected Miss Marsh, “you did not.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

Don’t you believe her,” But Dorothy insisted, and as I cannot doubt the word of either girl I will leave it to you readers. A prize of a ticket to any movie show in town to the first person who will prove that Mr. Harron did or did not go goldfishing in Mae Marsh’s back yard, and why. Address this office and put sufficient postage on your letters.

Miss Gish’s pets are a cat, “Tippy,” and a canary, “Tippy, Jr.” Although the names are so similar, there is no family connection, although the cat would have it that way if possible. From accounts I hear of them, they are the real rulers of the pretty Gish home in Los Angeles, which place, incidentally, was formerly the residence of Ruth St. Denis, the dancer. Oh, yes, and I mustn’t forget that both these charming girls have bull-dogs of the same breed and the same name. I hate to tell you the name, it’s so much like mine! Just before I was leaving, Mrs. Marsh and Mrs. Gish came in. If I hadn’t met Mrs. Gish before I certainly would have taken her for a sister of Dorothy’s and Lillian’s, and Mrs. Marsh I did mistake for Mae’s older sister until I was introduced. Truly these are wonderful families, both the house of Marsh and of Gish.

Film Players Herald and Movie Pictorial, Feb. 1916
Film Players Herald and Movie Pictorial, Feb. 1916

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Mona Lisa of The Movies – By Delight Evans (Screenland – June 1924)

Screenland – June 1924 Vol IX No.3

The Mona Lisa of The Movies

By Delight Evans

Is it because Lillian Gish’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?

If an intrepid producer today decided to do Cleopatra, who would you select as the most likely interpreter of the title role? Cleopatra, enchantress of the Nile; with Salome, holding the vamping championship of the ages; Egypt’s luscious queen called Cleo by the vulgar varieties and tin-pan alley. Nita Naldi? Barbara La Marr? Theda Bara—she made it once, you know. No.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish.

Now that the uproar has subsided and the hoots and hisses have died in the distance, let me repeat: Lillian Gish. That same Lillian whose last name has come to be a verb among film followers. Famous as the Little Nell of the silent drama; the most persecuted heroine of all time; the victim of more unfortunate circumstances than any other girl who was ever cast out in a cape into the night that was forty below. In short, the sweet seducee of hundreds of celluloid chromos — what, she, Cleopatra? Exactly. Lillian Gish is the only logical candidate for the role. You may picture Cleopatra as a large and luscious lady; a voluptuous creature with black, black hair and sloe eyes; a mouth that looks always as if it has just been kissed. A combination of Naldi and Negri and La Marr with a dash of piquance a la Alma Rubens.

Wrong again.

Lillian Gish cca 1933s portrait

Cleo Was a Ingenue. Cleo could be classified, according to type, only as an ingenue. She was essence of ingenue, de luxe. She was very, very slender; she had wide, innocent eyes. Feminine, soft, soothing and sweet. She had her own way, but in her own way. She caressed and cajoled, as ingenues have always done. She would have fitted in beautifully in any gathering of the Ladies Aid of Alexandria. She was a little lady—and the most dangerous one of her day.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Oh, yes, Cleopatra was an ingenue. A devastating darling with an iron will and a fixed purpose. A slim, bright sword in a shimmering sheath. It was a noted archaeologist who said that her twentieth-century celluloid incarnation was none other than Lillian Gish. The girl who has been for years the screen symbol of female virtue, modesty, and meekness. He looked at her, so the story goes, and exclaimed: “Cleopatra!” “What?” said the surprised maestro, Mr. Griffith. “Miss Gish?” “Ah—she is the perfect type! She has everything any actress needs to play the part.” “But she’s an ingenue,” protested her great teacher.

“That may be,” smiled the authority on dead ages and living ladies. “Nevertheless, she has it—that inflexibility, that subtlety that Cleopatra exhibited, to the ultimate degree. If, my dear sir, you do not film Cleopatra with Lilian Gish in the leading role you will be overlooking an opportunity—a very great opportunity, indeed.”

Doubtless the showman side of D. W. G. foresaw the public’s inability or reluctance to view a re-creation of Cleopatra other than in the well-upholstered person of Nita Naldi. He smiled and said nothing. And Lillian Gish went her own way with her own company, and D. W. went his. Hence Cleopatra and Miss Gish have never gotten together.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Lillian, an Enigma

Lillian seems determined to confine herself to the portrayals of unvarnished virgins; to dedicate her art and her subtle smile to the perpetuation of many more Anna Moores. A pity. Because the screen has never reflected the Cleopatra complex in our most stainless heroine. Her adorers would shudder to see her in the arms of Antony; her littlegirl fans of all ages would stop sending her crocheted doilies if she ever enacted a person of adult passions and intelligence. The virgin queen of the screen is an enigma if there ever was one. Where is her Leonardo? Griffith, as her professional da Vinci, painted her as the Gioconda of the gelatines, as faithfully, perhaps, as anyone ever will. But the Griffith Gish was never half so baffling as the curiously quiet, gentle-voiced woman who is the real Lillian.

A Timely Interception - 2 Biograph
A Timely Interception – Biograph

So many think they know her. Her hordes of girl interviewers swarm about her and come away worshipping, calling her by her first name and devoutly believing they have been admitted inside the shell. Her co-workers admire and often adore her—I know this is old stuff, but it’s fact this time. I remember Kate Bruce, who has played with her since Biograph days, when her eyes filled with tears as she said: “God bless her! She’s a wonderful girl. Always the same; always kind and patient. She works harder than any of us. That guillotine scene (they were making Orphans of the Storm) was done a dozen times, and she was better every time.” They used to stand on the sidelines out at the Griffith studios and watch her go through a scene. When she had wrung the hearts of the studio spectators and the camera had captured her tragic tears she would look around at the friendly circle as if surprised she could stir them so. Always, she was the calmest of them all.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

The Ingenue Grows Up

I’ve watched her grow up. Not from baby days. But from an ingenue leading woman to one of the three or four outstanding women of the silver-sheet. I saw her for the first time, in Chicago, about seven years ago. It was after Hearts of the World had been a triumph for Griffith and for the Gish sisters. It made Dorothy, the Little Disturber, a star. Lillian and Mrs. Gish wired me to meet them at the station where they had an hour before boarding an east-bound train. Lillian took my breath away. She was so ethereal I couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes in her earthliness when she ordered and ate an artichoke. She was carrying a tall cane really a wand—which she used for the exercises she performed faithfully every day. Always frail—but her indominable indominable courage has made her strong. For one old Griffith picture she learned to turn cartwheels. She taught herself to swim a few years ago. Work—work—work—that has been her whole life. She is absolutely selfless and sincere in it. Her inflexibility is incongruous with her smooth, suave surface. She is as delicate and as dainty a creature as you would want to see. Faint perfume; a soft “veil”; perfect gloves and all that sort of thing. A clever author once remarked to me that she was a great woman because she was so adaptable.

Diane of The Follies - Lillian Gish
Diane of The Follies – Lillian Gish

She is a chameleon. She is a lovely mirror in a quaint frame. In any salon, at any court in the world she would not be out of place. All the more remarkable when you consider that her youth was spent almost entirely on the stage, and not the New York stage. The stages of small towns’; the hard, relentless life of a trouper was hers until the movies, that fairy godmother of so many Cinderellas, lifted her from obscurity to fortune. Disillusioned by Hard Knocks There was one time of her career when she lived in a little hotel near Washington Square and cooked all her meals over a one-burner gas stove. When she actually did not get enough to eat. David Belasco told her afterwards he thought she was wasting away. There were times when she and her mother and Dorothy could not be together; when the exigencies of their uncertain profession called them apart. Her training was a stern school. She has known all the hard knocks, all the disappointments; and I have always thought her a little disillusioned. In the years I have known her I recall a glimpse here and there that interests me—for no particular reason except that it reveals something of the real Lillian—a creature as varied in mood and mind as anyone I have ever known. She has always seemed to me to be an unconsciously complex individual. Exteriorly, she is somewhat of a Pollyanna, with a respect for the good, wholesome, middle-western things.

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

I saw her after she and Dorothy and Mr. Griffith had lunched at the White House with the Hardings. She marvelled a bit that the President and his wife were so much like other human beings—just plain, simple folk like ourselves. It was apparent, too, a long time ago, when I went with her and her mother to see Broken Blossoms. The audience contained several representatives of the higher social order of Manhattan. We went to an ice cream emporuim afterwards and over our sundaes Lillian thrilled at the fact that the once-lowly movies could now attract the creme de la creme of the aristocracy. And yet she cannot help being the friendliest and most democratic of souls. Sympathy is within her and she has made up helpless little extras and taken under her wing pretty aspirants for screen honors. She is one of the few stars of importance who will go out of her way a little to help someone, without thought of return.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Really Old-Fashioned

She is really old-fashioned. Her dressing-table drawers are neat and orderly. She used to keep piles of pretty silk underthings, and hundreds of handkerchiefs, and never wear them. Her sister and James Rennie once escorted her to a smart hotel where the youthful fashionables were wont to cavort. Lillian couldn’t believe young people really acted like that. Her visit to the suburban home of a famous novelist and his wife opened her wistful eyes still wider. “And they say that motion picture people are gay,” she exclaimed. “Why, I never saw anything like it in all the time I have been in pictures.” An eminent and elderly French artist asked her to pose for him. He did some charming things of her and called her his most entrancing subject. I heard him rave. He bent over her hand. He gave her a rose and asked her to pose for another head. Lillian thanked him prettily and told me later that she always took someone with her to the sittings. Her shyness and her modesty are genuine, not assumed. But I do not doubt that, if her role called for it, she would do a Lady Godiva without a murmur. When she is working she is impersonal. I spent a week-end with the Gishes when they lived in Mamaroneck. The family retired early. On Lillian’s bed-table was her prayer book with its “L. G.” on the cover. The next morning she was up at six and at the studio at six-thirty. It was Sunday. She was directing Dorothy in a comedy while Mr. Griffith was in the South. She made it a good comedy by sheer determination and desperately hard work. Everything happened to hinder her that can happen in a studio. The electrical apparatus wouldn’t work. It was a grind. In her severely simple suit, with a green shade over her eyes, and a huge megaphone, she was L. Gish, director, and a darned good one. Not a vestige of the girl the world knows. She was the most impersonal director I ever saw on a set. Her own sister might have been a casual acquaintance. Patient, tactful—yes. But business-like. She hardly had time or the inclination to pose for publicity stills. I have always handed it to her for her work with that comedy. It was an achievement entirely unassisted by personality.

Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)

A Good Sport

Then, the first time she left Griffith, the company that was to have starred her in a series of features fell through, she was a good little sport. She had made up her mind it was time for her to make money—compared to the salaries of other stars, her Griffith remuneration was small, indeed. But when her company failed she went- back and quietly became a part of the Griffith organization again. It must have been a keen and bitter disappointment; but if it hurt her nobody knew it. She played her parts in the Griffith pictures more exceptionally than ever before. She shared, more than any other Griffith player, the director’s triumphs. At one of the premiers, the audience called for Mr. Griffith; and after his speech, applauded thunderously for his heroine. Griffith smiled. “You are looking in the right direction,” he said, waving at her box. Somehow a Griffith first night has never seemed so colorful since she has left. Now she is an established star in her own right. She has made The White Sister and Romola in Italy. She shops in Paris and Rome. She has met and grown to know men and women of the world; the substantial things of life are hers. And has she changed? Of course, she has. She has taken on a new poise and a fresh charm. Her contact with another world—the bigger, polished existence outside a studio—has left its impression. She is mentally more alert—and more silent than before.

German postcard. Ross Verlag No. 8442. British-American Film A.-G. (Bafag), Berlin. Lillian Gish in the film The White Sister (Henry King 1923), shot in Italy.

A Trifle Tired

The thought has occurred to me about her that she is a trifle tired. She has accomplished so much in a few short years. Not yet thirty, she has been accorded a niche next to Duse. Her personal popularity is greater than Maude Adams’ ever was. John Barrymore has called her a truly great artiste. So have many others. With the illusion that she, a real actress, a conscientious, devoted artiste, loved and lived only for her work, I once said to her: “But, of course, you wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t always busy.” She turned to me, and her lovely eyes—the only eyes I have ever seen which could be called limpid—were a little weary.

“Oh, yes I could,” she said. “Do you think any of us would work if necessity didn’t demand it? I would love to have money enough and time enough just to follow spring around the world.”

Alfred Cheney Johnston Lillian Gish 1922 Orphans outfit

Her earnings have been considerable. And the Gish family has never lived exorbitantly. Theirs has been the life of the usual prosperous home. But the long and serious illness of Mrs. Gish, with its heavy expenses—for nothing was spared that their beloved mother might be well and strong again—was a severe drain on the finances and the courage of the sisters. Speaking of courage, Lillian has it. Mrs. Gish lay ill in the hospital while Orphans of the Storm was being made. Lillian and Dorothy often dashed to town from the suburban studio for a moment’s visit. They did the greatest work of their careers while their hearts were heavy and their nerves at the breaking-point. Their mother has always ben their first consideration. Studio mamas have been kidded, and often with justice. But here is an exception. Mae Gish is one of the finest women whose fortunes have ever been associated with the films. Slight and pretty, with Lillian’s gentleness and Dorothy’s sense of humor, she has sympathy and savoir faire. Her son-inlaw adores her. What higher praise? She is well again and with her girls in Italy.

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo

Lillian is Old-World

Somehow I think Lillian has always belonged there. She is old-world. I can imagine her among the ruins of the Renaissance; in those serene places where the lustrous ladies she rather resembles used to linger. I’d like to have her play Beatrice d’Este, that capricious child of Milan, with her dwarfs and her festivities and her gem-encrusted gowns. Lillian would rather play Isabella, I suppose! If she could only be persuaded that her dramatic future lies along different lines. She has played too long the passive part. Except in a few of the old Triangle films, such as Diana of the Follies, she has been the instrument of a cruel fate. If she would shake off the shackles of conventionality, she would be truly great. She has courage. Why not use it and play Cleopatra; or Mona Lisa, or Beatrice? Perhaps, like her friend Mary Pickford, she is bound by cinema traditions. Mary is firmly convinced that she dare not trifle with the public affection to the extent of portraying a human being; and so she keeps on playing her pretty, innocuous children. Does Lillian Gish dare to do a Cleopatra? I had hopes when I read the reports that she was at last to embark upon the high sea of real romance. The rumors of her engagement to Charles Duell, the president of her company, Inspiration Pictures, still persists despite cabled denials from Italy. And only the other day I heard that a young naval officer had given up his post to follow her to Rome and Florence, and that she was as enamoured of him as he of her. Again, denials. Let Lillian Gish allow herself to indulge in a little amour, away from the blinding studio lights and the ceaseless click of the camera; let her marry and even retire for a while—and the screen will be richer for her experience. Is it because Lillian’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?

The White Sister
The White Sister

A young man in England used to send her poems, all nicely bound and expressive of his undying devotion. Lillian was pleased with them, and showed a little-girl eagerness for the next edition. Will life cheat her of the passions and perplexities she has never enacted before the camera? Will her own existence resolve itself into a repetition of the passive part she has played on the screen?

You may answer that in Way Down East; her Anna Moore suffered, and suffered, and suffered. I know she did. But Anna Moore was a dumb-bell. Almost without exception, the girls she has geen called upon to act have been dumb-bells. They suffer, but only physically. You feel that they have learned nothing from life. Lillian has absorbed. She has a receptive mind and a retentive memory; and, unlike her heroines, she has grown up, with the potentialities for honest emotion and drama. Lillian Gish is not a dumb-bell. She is a remarkable woman. And the sooner she proves it upon the screen the better.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Dorothy Gish—Her Story By Marguerite Sheridan (Picture Play Magazine 1918)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1918

Dorothy Gish—Her Story

Told as it could be only by a friend and admirer.

By Marguerite Sheridan

THIS is Dorothy Gish’s own story. But if, perchance, Lillian and mother Gish should occasionally pop in, you will know that it could not ,be otherwise. Dorothy wouldn’t let me write a story about her if I didn’t include the other members of her adored family.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

The Gish sisters had always been fortunate in having contracts with the same motion-picture companies until the early spring of 1917, when Lillian went overseas to take part in “Hearts of the World.” Then arose the question as to whether mother Gish should go with Lillian or remain with her youngest daughter in New York. Dorothy unselfishly decided that Lillian needed mother most, and that she would stay. But it was a very sad little girl that bade them fare-well. Imagine her joy a few weeks later, when Mr. Griffith came to the conclusion that he needed someone to play “la petite gamine” of the Paris streets — The Little Disturber—and, with his unerring judgment, instantly visioned Dorothy Gish, plus a short, curly black wig, in this piquant role!

"Parting of Ways" finally a high resolution - From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s
“Parting of Ways” finally a high resolution – From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s

I shuddered when I heard the Gish girls had gone to Europe. I hated to think of their golden heads as possible targets for the Boche’s bad humor as evidenced by frequent air raids on London, and I held up my thumbs for them against all “tin devilfish” and mal de mer.

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

Back in America, this little war veteran sometimes rubs her eyes and wonders if this European trip was not only a dream – if she ever went through air raids and submarine perils, and other unpleasant things. Los Angeles had never seemed quite so good before.

It was a little more than six years ago that Lillian and Dorothy Gish, then students in a Virginia boarding school, went up to New York to spend Easter vacation with their mother. Someone told them that Mary Pickford—they had known her since childhood—was playing in the then almost unheard of branch of art—motion pictures—so they called to see her one day at the old Biograph Studio. Mary was not there, but they were shown around the studio and introduced to D. W. Griffith. He evinced an interest in the pretty, blond girls, and when Mrs. Gish told him that they had had stage experience, offered to use them in a new picture he was commencing. Mrs. Gish consented for Lillian, but firmly insisted that Dorothy must return to school.

Then and there The Little Disturber proved that she was a young person of much mettle. There were stormy tears and persuasions, and the controversy ended by the two Gish girls being listed on the Biograph pay roll. The identity of the Biograph players was shrouded in mystery in those days. Their names were never given to the public, and I have a vivid recollection of four “Biograph blondes” as we called them. One had long curls and a delicious pout—that was Mary Pickford.


Another had smooth, fair hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and wonderful dramatic ability—that was Blanche Sweet. Then there was an exquisitely beautiful girl with a face like a Madonna and the sweetest expression I have even seen—Lillian Gish ; and the fourth, a dear, chubby, round-faced child, with large, curious eyes, who proved to be her sister Dorothy. Dorothy has grown up since then, but her face is just as round, her eyes as large and blue, and her little mouth just as kissable, as the day when mother and Lillian took her to the Biograph Studio. She makes me think of apple blossoms in spring—all pink and white and fragrant. She brushes her golden hair back from her forehead with the same inimitable gesture you have seen so often on the screen, and when she smiles she puts one finger tip to her mouth in the roguish manner that is Dorothy Gish’s own. “When we were with Biograph, Mr. Griffith made ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ his first feature,” reminisced Dorothy. “It was in four reels, and took just nine days to make. We thought it was wonderful, and I was very proud when Mr. Griffith gave me a small part as a dancer in the king’s court. We all loved Blanche Sweet’s Judith. “We came to California with Mr. Griffith when he opened the Majestic Reliance Studio, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Fine Arts gave Dorothy Gish star roles in numerous five-reelers. She was featured in “Betty of Graystones,” “Little Meena’s Romance,” “Gretchen, the Greenhorn,” “The Little Schoolteacher,” “Jordan’s a Hard Road,” and was an adorable Little Katje with Wallace Reid in “Old Heidelberg.” The Little Disturber was the golden opportunity of her life, and she realized it. Very often the characters in Griffith photo plays seem to mirror the master director in every word and action, with small chance for showing their own individuality, but in the case of The Little Disturber, the original Dorothy Gish vivacity and tireless energy came to the surface every foot of the film.

Lil Dorothy tennis

When not working at the studio, Lillian and Dorothy seek characteristic amusements. Perhaps Lillian will adorn her ivory-and-blue brocade chaiselongue while she reads. No chaiselongue for Miss Dorothy. It’s a linen skirt and smock, large shady hat and canvas shoes, and several vigorous games of tennis with some of her athletic friends on her own court, which adjoins the beautiful white stucco Gish home on Serrano Avenue.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

The Fine Arts Studio, where the girls are now working, is five miles from their home. Lillian walked it one day, and Dorothy says she will take her word for the distance. So, instead of lunching at home, they cruise across Sunset Boulevard to a now famous little lunch stand, forever glorified in the D. Gish eyes by the never-failing supply of lemon cream pies. Every time I see a pie of that persuasion, I think of Dorothy Gish. It’s her greatest weakness in the gastronomic line, and she has been known to lunch exclusively on this delicacy for many days in succession.

It is a real joy in this “common or garden variety” world to come across such a refreshing and original character as Dorothy Gish. She is a regular girl, without the slightest doubt, and abhors anything the least bit “stagy.”

pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car
pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car

“If any one ever calls me ‘Wistful’ again, I’ll retire !” she said, with as much vehemence possible in one so absolutely “gishy.” “I loathe the word !” No, I should never call Dorothy Gish “wistful.” She has a very positive character, doing nothing by halves. When she likes a person, she does it thoroughly, and I imagine she can dislike just as whole-heartedly. I love her well developed sense of humor. It has come to her rescue in many distressing moments. For instance, on her twentieth birthday, Mrs. Gish planned a party for her. Dinner was to be served at seven. At eight-thirty, the little hostess arrived home, too tired to move, and covered with the grime of an especially trying day’s work. A lump came into her throat when she thought of the dainty dinner gown made for this gala night—she felt like crying, and crying hard. But she didn’t. With a gay little jest, she sat down at the table, radiant with spring blossoms and Cluny lace, wearing her old studio clothes, and immediately became the life of the party. “It was quite the nicest birthday I ever had,” she announced afterward. Dorothy is to appear in a number of five-reel Paramount productions this season, which is as it should be. Griffith features take many months to make, and we need frequent, very frequent appearances of Dorothy Gish to make our shadow world complete.

Dorothy Gish Cca 1930 FSF

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Expressions Of Lillian Gish (Picture Show, 1920)

THE EXPRESSIONS OF LILLIAN GISH. (Exclusive to the “Picture Show”)

Picture Show, November 13th 1920


The Talented Screen Artist With the Heart of a Child

FROM the day that Lillian Gish, at the age of seven, played the part of little Willie in ” East Lynne,” her career was decided. Lillian naturally possesses a pathetic charm that is all her own, and the power to get rigflt to the hearts of her audience. The culminating point of her success was reached in her rendering of the girl in the now world-famous ” Broken Blossoms.” It was Mrs. Mary Gish, the mother of the two popular Gish girls, who paved the way for her two daughters to become the popular successes they are to-day. When only twenty-three years of age, Mrs. Gish was left a widow with two tiny girls to support.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

Mary’s Part in Her Life Story.

A FRIEND procured for Mrs. Gish a walking-on part at the local theatre. In time she was advanced to better parts, and whilst touring round with her two little girls, they made the acquaintance of Mary Pickford. Mary was then herself playing child parts on the stage and Lillian and Dorothy were adding to the family income by playing small parts, when they were needed, in their mother’s company. Many children step from stage to the screen these days, but in the early days of the films, it was not an easy matter. The two little girls lived for six years in third-rate hotels, and moved from town to town, with the theatrical company without any hope of ever being anything more than just a member of that third-rate company.

Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish

Her First Screen Success.

THEN one day they visited a picture show, and recognised in the star no less a personage than the little girl with whom they had become so friendly on a previous tour, Mary Pickford. They had appeared together in one show, and the little girls had become very fond of each other. As soon as the company reached New York, the Gish girls called on their old friend, whom they had known when she was playing under her real name of Gladys Smith. Mary was genuinely glad to see them, and after getting Lillian an engagement for a small role as a fairy in ” A Good Little Devil,” in which Mary was playing an important part on the stage, she gave them an introduction to the great D. W. Griffith, and then and there he engaged Lillian to play a small part on the screen.


A Lover of Simplicity.

FROM that day to this, Lillian has made rapid strides in her screen successes. Early plays in which you may remember her are, ” The Battle of the Sexes,” ” Home Sweet Home,” then in “The Birth of a Nation,” and ” Intolerance,” in which she took the part of the woman who rocks the cradle, ” The Greater Love.” Last but far from least is the part of the child in ” Broken Blossoms,” which is well known to every reader of the Picture Show. Lillian is just as simple in her tastes as in the characters she portrays so well on the screen. She says she owes much of her success to the simplicity of the frocks she wears. She is devoted to her library and her treasured books ; she sings a little, and one of her greatest treasures is a little ballad called “Broken Blossoms,” presented to her by the author. She says she finds genuine pleasure in singing it, and is delighted and proud that her picture is printed on the front cover.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

Must Learn How Not To Act.

LILLIAN has a very real admiration for D. W. Griffith, the world-famous producer. She tells how Mr. Griffith trains all his players how not to act. ‘That is the very first thing on which he insists,’she says. ” We must move through our parts just as we would in real life, there must be no artificial expressions and no posing. Mr. Griffith teaches that to express an emotion, you must feel it, then the expression will be real. He is a dreamer who makes his dreams come true, and his ideals of truth and beauty are contagious. It is more difficult not to understand him than it is to understand him. His very simplicity of method and his quiet direction make for complete harmony between his players and himself.”

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Born to Serve.

PERHAPS that is why Lillian has made such a wonderful cinema actress. She loves to be dominated; in fact, obedience is the chief trait of her character. Mrs. Gish says that both of her girls are wonderfully good, but Dorothy is wilful, and likes her own way, while Lillian can always be relied upon to do just what she is told. Lillian believes that some people are born to rule and some to serve, and she places herself among those who serve.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Her Ambition.

IT is difficult to get Lillian to talk about herself. By way of greeting she will ask you if you have seen Dorothy in her latest picture. It is her ambition to see London, and as her friend Norma Talmadge told me, she was more than disappointed that she was unable to accompany her mother and Dorothy on their visit to Europe. However, she has promised herself a real holiday soon, during which she has planned a tour of Great Britain. So we may soon see her over here.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
Picture Show (Nov 1920) Expressions Lillian Gish
Picture Show (Nov 1920) Expressions Lillian Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

I Go A – calling on the Gish Girls – By Richard Willis (1914)

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919


I Go A-calling on the Gish Girls

By Richard Willis

Most people don’t like making calls, but I am of those old fashioned individuals who enjoy it. We had met before, these delightful Gish girls and I, and there already existed between us the easy friendship of youth with middle age, so it was with a light heart and a half smile of pleased anticipation that I approached their house that sunny afternoon. Someone was playing on the piano – not regularly playing, just strumming idly as though to fill a tedious interval when there was nothing to engage her attention.

I rang the bell and the strumming stopped abruptly, quick steps crossed the hall and the door was thrown hospitably open by the very tall, very fair girl, with her very blonde hair hanging down her back, who is Dorothy.

Dorothy Gish Postcard SD

“Why, Mr. Willis, how good of you to come to see us,” she cried clasping hand with the firm heartiness of a friendly boy. “Lillian, oh, Lillian, here’s Mr. Willis,” she called raising her voice a little. In response to her call there entered another very tall, very fair girl, with color in her cheeks a little more vivid than her sister’s and with her very blonde hair piled high on her head. “How do you do, Mr. Willis,” she cried gaily, sweeping me a little curtsy, and then sitting down beside her sister on the broad couch before the west window. As for me, I simply sat and beamed at them for the moment. Certainly two sisters never made a prettier picture than did Lillian and Dorothy Gish, there in the west window on that quaint old brocaded couch, Lillian in a delicate pink frock with a turquoise brooch at her throat and Dorothy in a dress of filmy white, with the sunlight that streamed through the window turning their blonde hair to gold.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

Except that Dorothy wore her hair down her back and Lillian’s was done high, they looked almost of an age. But of course, Lillian is a little the older in years and a good deal the older in motion picture experience. But when Dorothy once got started she advanced very rapidly and I never knew anyone prouder of a sister’s success than Lillian is. Where one might have expected a little strain, a little jealousy even, there is nothing but the most enthusiastic and genuine pride in each other.

“Whatever you do,” said Dorothy impetuously – I had divulged the fact that I had an “ax to grind” in making this call – and had been met with, “We knew that you hadn’t come all this way just to see two foolish girls,” – “please don’t refer to us as ‘stars’. It is too silly, because we haven’t had time to be stars yet, have we Lillian? But, oh, we do want to be some time!”

The Most Beautiful Blonde - Belasco

“And please don’t drag in that threadbare statement that I am the most beautiful blonde in the world,” Lillian pleaded. “That sounds so silly, too. Really, you know, it is not particularly encouraging when you’ve been working your ,head off on a part and think that you’ve done good work in it, to have everyone say that ‘she looked very beautiful.’ Sometimes I wish I were really homely just so that my acting would have to count instead of my hair and eyes,”

“You see, Lillian’s been on the stage since she was four,” broke in Dorothy, “so she ought to know something about acting. Of course, we had to stop and go to school for a while in the Ursuline Convent at St. Louis to sort of finish up, but most of the time we’ve had tutors and studied and acted at the same time. Lillian was only six when, she played in ‘The Little Red Schoolhouse’ and we were all so proud of her.

Tell Mr. Willis about that time, Lillian,” she urged.

Lillian Gish Photoplay Magazine Dec 1914 b
Lillian Gish Photoplay Magazine Dec 1914 b

“Well,” Lillian said, “I remember that I wasn’t a bit frightened and that I certainly was pleased. It seemed just like a game to me. I remember the lines I had to say, perfectly. A little boy, came up to me and said, ‘Do you like, chicken?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and then he held out his arm and said, ‘Then take a wing,’ ,and I took it and we walked out together.

Mary Pickford played, the same part afterwards. And Vivian Prescott was in the same company and played the soubrette. “Dorothy , was only four when she started too. Her first part was that of little Willie in East Lynne – remember it?, Do you remember how you always insisted on opening your eyes in the wrong place, Dorothy?”

,’Yes,” Dorothy answered. “I did, that because it was such fun to have someone whisper, “shut your peepers darling.” That always sounded so nice and comforting and then I’d shut my eyes tight. Fancy acting as a little boy, though”

“Didn’t you like acting boy parts?” I queried.

, “Certainly not,” said Miss Dorothy disdainfully. “I hated it so much that ,sometimes they had to be quite severe with me. Mother had one, perfectly awful threat that she saved for my most rebellious moments and that was that she’d make me walk home in my knickerbockers.’ It had its effect, too. Lillian played little Willie, too, didn’t you Lillian?”

Lillian Gish Photoplay Magazine Dec 1914
Lillian Gish Photoplay Magazine Dec 1914

“Yes, but in another company,” Lillian said., ‘I didn’t mind being a boy although I always preferred girl parts. One has to go through the little Willie and the little Eva and all the other ‘littles’, you know, if one, travels with repertoire companies and ,is a child actress-don’t you dare write down prodigy, sir, and make it sound as though we were some strange freaks.”

I promised, while protesting that I had had no intention of using the word-I don’t like the sound of it myself, as it happens.

“This is the way we looked at that time,” said Dorothy, bringing out a great big scrap book in which she has all her pictures and press notices since her debut at four, and showing me a picture of two little tots, with round little faces and very curly blonde hair. Even then, however, they didn’t look any more alike than they do now. And even then Lillian’s mouth wasn’t any more of the rosebud order than it is now, and Dorothy’s was almost as straight and determined. I could see that her mother, probably had need of the dire threat that she had mentioned. The little heads were very close together in the picture and I said, banteringly: “You were really fond of each other, then, were you not?” Lillian looked up reproachfully and Dorothy came back at me sarcastically with:

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

“Oh, no, of course, not. We used to fight just like cats and dogs. We were just as bitter enemies as we are now, weren’t we sister? Why, when Lillian was eight and I was six and we acted together in ‘Her First False Step’ we just hated it, didn’t we? We had to stand being together for three whole seasons, and then, Lillian was taken on tour with Sarah Bernhardt as one of her fairy dancers – and it nearly broke my heart.”

Lillian Gish at Six

Lillian smiled as she described her first meeting with the great French actress. “She saw me standing in the wings all alone and came over to me and putting her hand under my chin, turned my face up to hers and looked at me intently and then began playing with my hair, all the time talking rapidly in French. I couldn’t understand a word she said, but I was certain that she was telling me that she thought my hair was pretty and that comforted me a lot”

Lillian Gish profile cca 1915

While Lillian was playing in Sarah Bernhardt’s company, Dorothy was engaged by Fiske O’Hara to play the part of a little Irish girl in “Dion O’Dare,” a part she loved, and later still she played a little East side girl in “Blarney from Ireland.” She was with O’Hara for four years and became a great favorite wherever she appeared.

“I was ten years old then,” she told me, “and I was sent to school for a while first in Ohio and then in Virginia and then I became ill and Mother and Lillian came for me.”

“Yes,” broke in her sister, “and I can see her now. She nearly broke our hearts, she was so thin and so languid. And she had been such a chubby little girl when she went away that I laid it all- to her illness and felt very bitter. Mother tried to make me see that it was perfectly natural for her to lose her chubbiness between six and ten, but I was very sure that we had neglected her. We took her away w.ith us and we have never been apart since except for one engagement that I had. I certainly was homesick that time. It was the first time I had ever been away from mother.”

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

This little account of their early experiences made me realize sharply what motion picture acting means to the Gish sisters and their mother. If they had stayed on the legitimate stage their lives would have been a succession of leave takings. It would have been practically impossible for the girls to get engagements in the same company and equally impossible for their mother to have them both with her. But now they could even act in different motion picture companies and still live together as they do and have time for outdoor play and for all of the social intercourse that girls need and enjoy. Best of all, the girls say, they have time for study. Dorothy is learning to play the piano and Lillian has outlined a course of reading for herself. She showed me her books and I must say that It was rather a remarkable collection for a girl of her age. There was a lot of good classical poetry with a sprinkling of modern poets; there were plays and plays and plays, there were books of dramatic criticism and dramatic technique, and a very fair collection of the first rate modern novelists. I tried to find out what her interests were outside her reading, but could gather little. Certainly her work and her reading are her two great enthusiasms. As for Dorothy, her enthusiasm for her work is so big a part of her life that they tell me she is almost unbearable to live with if she has to stay at home for more than a day.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479
“She gets the whole house into fidgets, so that we are all glad when she has to go back to the studio again,” said Lillian laughing. “The only thing that really interests her, outside of the studio,” she went on, “is-”

“Sleeping!” Dorothy interrupted. “I admit it. But I insist that I have a perfect right to be interested in sleeping,” she said with mock defiance. “I’m a hard working woman and I need sleep. And if you dare to call me a girl, why I’ll call you an old man, so there.”

“You would never be so unkind,” I said with an affectation of seriousness. “Considering my age, it would hurt my feelings terribly. Indeed, rather than risk such a dire calamity I shall depart immediately and not tell a thing about how you got into pictures through knowing Mary Pickford nor what David W. Griffith thinks of you…  nor what are your favorite parts.”

“That doesn’t hurt me in the least,” Dorothy maintained, “for I haven’t any favorite parts. I don’t care what I act in as long as I have a chance to act and Lillian is almost as bad. However, I don’t think it would be fair to foist any more stuff about us on the poor readers of Photoplay. If they are really interested in Lillian and little me, still there is a limit. If we were clever, now-” Whereupon I prepared for a hasty retreat after accusing her of fishing, at which she protested vehemently, and after promising to “come again.” They came to the door to wave goodbye to me, with their arms around each other, Lillian in her delicate pink frock, and Dorothy in white, and I repeat-they made an altogether charming picture. I wish you could have seen them!

Lillian and Dorothy Gish Photoplay Magazine, Dec 1914 cover
Lillian and Dorothy Gish Photoplay Magazine, Dec 1914 cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page