The Gallant Gish Girls (Life Magazine 1951) By Richard L. Williams (PDF)

The Gallant Gish Girls



WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.

Actress, Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, sitting with two dogs in an apartment in New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )


 Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.

Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Ladyfingers for lunch

SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.

Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)

The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health.  “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know  anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”

An actress Lillian Gish sitting next to her sister, Dorothy Gish at an apartment in New York City, New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

They beg to differ

BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.

“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’

Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;

“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.

Dorothy Gish in Lillian’s apartment NY 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Screen test with sound effects

In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman – Birth of A Nation

Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – Way Down East

It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.

One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.

The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.

Lillian Gish and her Mother (Duell Trial)

“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.

Dorothy Gish, James Rennie and Lillian Gish

Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.

For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.

Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.

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

There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.

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Lillian Gish talks to Howard Lockhart (BBC Radio 1969)

Lillian Gish – BBC 1969

Lillian Gish talks to  Howard Lockhart about herself and the early days of the movies.

She has been called “the first lady of the silent screen,” and film director D.W. Griffith extolled her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She was Lillian Gish, the star of movies, television, radio, and the stage for nearly all of the 20th century. 

It Takes All Sorts

A series in which you meet interesting and unusual people from all walks of life

BBC Radio 4 FM

19 November 1969 9.35

Lillian Gish talks to Howard Lockhart (BBC Radio 1969)
1969 Press Photo Stage actress Lillian Gish at Tacoma Town Hall Lecture Series

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KQED – Lillian Gish – Mary Martin 1981 interview (TV Capture)

Lillian Gish – Mary Martin (Over Easy Camera, New York)

Critics, historians, and scholars are virtually unaminous in their agreement that Griffith’s greatest performer was Lillian Gish. John Barrymore compared her with Bernhardt and Duse. Critics rhapsodized over her “Dresden porcelain” beauty. She started with Griffith in 1912 at the age of sixteen and became his preeminent interpreter in such major works as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.

KQED – Lillian Gish – Mary Martin 1981 interview – HDV 720p TV Capture

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Lillian Gish, 1978 CBC Archives

Lillian Gish, 1978 CBC Archives – TV capture VHS quality

First lady of the screen, Miss Lillian Gish in an interview filmed in 1978, presented by CBC as an episode in their “Retro-Bites” series.

Lillian Gish, 1978 CBC Archives – TV capture VHS quality

*** Admin note: Featured photo of Lillian Gish was taken in 1978 indeed, but is a still frame from an interview at BBC Television London. The material above has a low VHS resolution (TV capture) thus any still frame will be affected by the poor footage quality. Thank you for your understanding.

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Interviewing Lillian Gish


“We got along all right on that one, I’d say. I did everything I could do to please her, of course. I don’t recall ever having had an actor or an actress with whom I couldn’t get along. I’ve never thought about my being first or second in the billing, and I never brought up the fact that my name should be used, above or below the title. If it wasn’t used it was better for me, I thought, because of my family. I just never had any big head about “me,” and I always felt that I was so lucky. Everyone was so good to me throughout my career, and I can say in all honesty that I don’t recall having had a quarrel with anyone ever.” (Lillian Gish – The Whales of August)

From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for the pictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”

Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.” (Duel in the Sun)

Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”

In “Broken Blossoms,” for instance, and in “Way Down East,” I had physical distress to help me out. My appeal was in a measure made for me. I always had something the matter with me. In one I was a poor, frail, half-living little thing and in the other a down-trodden, storm-tossed girl. As Henriette I was well taken care of, beloved by the dashing Chevalier, watched over by Danton. Of course, I had lost my sister, but I was not sure that she was not well cared for, too. I had to make the loss of my sister and my instinctive fear for her overshadow my own personal well-being. That made Henriette a more difficult role than any I have yet played. (Motion Picture Magazine 1922)

“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios. “After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.

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Lillian Gish, 69, Still Part of Motion Picture History – By Bob Thomas (San Bernardino Sun, 1966)

San Bernardino Sun, Volume 72, 13 April 1966

Hollywood Beat

Lillian Gish, 69, Still Part of Motion Picture History

By Bob Thomas

Hollywood (AP)  – Lillian Gish neither looks nor acts like a museum piece. Her history would indicate that she should be put on display at some repository of movie history. After all, she appeared in her first film in 1912 and starred in D.W. Griffith classics: “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” etc.

Yet the soulful Gish eyes remain as alert as a teen-ager’s, and she has an outlook to match.

“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios.

Lillian Gish, Fred MacMurray photo from Walt Disneys Follow Me Boys

“After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.

1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head – Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations

Miss Gish flew here from an Italian vacation to appear in “The Warning Shot” with David Jannsen. During her stay here she will visit with old friends and coworkers. If there is any time left over, she may do some work on the memoir she us writing about her great mentor, Griffith.

“But that is terribly hard work for me,” she admitted, “and I usually have to hole up in a room in Switzerland to get anything written.”

Her schedule may seem remarkable for a 69-year-old, but it doesn’t seem so to Miss Gish. Fortunately for her, she is not required to maintain an income. During her heyday on the screen, from the age 12 to 30, she managed herself well. She never succumbed to the grand living that consumed the assets of many stars.

“I never even bought a home in California,” she explained. “New York was always my home and still is. The money I made went into the bank, not into acquisitions.”

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The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant

  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

Dorothy and Lillian – Unbroken Blossoms

I went to tea with Lillian and Dorothy the following afternoon. Their New York apartment was charming and they had a Southern butler, straight out of “Gone with the Wind” who appeared to have been with them for years. From the elegance and richness of the furnishings, it was obvious that Lillian and Dorothy had not squandered their money like so many of the early silent stars; having known what poverty was from their youth, they had, in fact, sensibly invested in real estate.

I was shown into the drawing-room where the sisters introduced me to their mother, a beautiful, exquisitely dressed, white-haired old lady whom they obviously adored. This was the actress who had instilled into Lillian her love of the theatre and whose own career had come to a tragic end. In 1925, Lillian, who was starring in ” The Scarlet Letter ” in Hollywood, heard that her mother was seriously ill in New York. Greatly distressed, she told the director, Victor Seastrom, that she must go to New York at once: he understandingly agreed. When she arrived, Lillian found that her mother had had a stroke which had totally deprived her of the power of speech. Ever since then, Lillian and Dorothy had looked after her; she lived with them, met their guests, was present at all their dinner parties-a gracious, fragile, silent and infinitely touching figure.

On that first visit, while we were taking tea, there seemed to be a mad cocktail party going on in the adjoining dining-room, the door to which was not quite closed. Through the small gap came a babble as of a coven of witches gossiping, with malevolent chuckles and shrieks of eldritch laughter; then one cackling voice could be heard with disconcerting clarity saying, ” That Dorothy Gish-she thinks she’s an actress ! Hee-hee-hee ! She’s no actress-that Dorothy Gish!” I coughed and rattled my teacup on its saucer and made conversation in a loud voice to drown the flow of disparagement from next door. Nobody else took the slightest notice of it and eventually the sounds died away; I assumed that the cocktail-takers had drunk themselves into a coma.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

One of them, it seemed, came to just as I was leaving. I had telephoned for a cab and when the porter rang back to say he had one waiting for me I said, ” I’ll be right down.” From the next room a horrid, mocking voice echoed, ” I’ll be right DOWN ! ” ” Who was that? ” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Oh, that’s our parrot,” said Lillian, ” you must meet her next time you come. She’s very lively for her age-we’re told she’s well over a hundred-and really a lovely person.” Dorothy, who had just entranced me by announcing, “I’ll go along with Rodney-I’m meeting Zasu and Gloria,” made no comment on the bird; it was conceivable that her affection for the garrulous ancient was more restrained than Lillian’s.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

At our subsequent meetings, Lillian, probably realizing that my love for the cinema was incurable, allowed herself to be lured into talking of early Hollywood days. I wanted to know how Griffith had got that wonderful close-up of her with frozen eyelashes in the blizzard scene of ” Way Down East “; had it been faked? Lillian was indignant. Certainly it had not been faked; the scene had actually been shoL in a blizzard, for which they had waited weeks, and not only her eyelashes but all of her had been frozen. ” I thought I would die of cold,” she said, ” but Griffith just kept shouting, ‘Give her some more hot tea and carry on.’ “

How, I asked, had she done that terrifying scene, in the same picture, where she was on an ice-floe when the ice broke up?

“Why, I just did it,” said Lillian, looking mildly surprised at the question. ‘We all did things in those days.” Recalling the wide use to-day of stand-ins and stunt-men, it seemed to me the modem actor was somewhat lacking in spirit. ” But, I said to Lillian, gazing at her with awe, ” surely you were risking your life? “

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

”Oh, yes, I suppose so,” said she: “as a matter of fact, I was in hospital for six months after that film.” One of Griffith’s most promising women players, Lillian told me, had actually died in the blizzard scene; Griffith re-cast the part and went on shooting.

Reminiscing about “Birth of a Nation,” she told me, with amusement, how one scene, which is still regarded as an outstanding example of screen art, came to be shot. The scene is that which shows the Southemer Colonel Cameron, returning from the Civil War to his ravaged home : he looks like a man who has been through hell. Griffith, it appears, was all set to shoot the scene of the colonel, full of high hopes and patriotic zeal, going off to the Civil War-but Henry B. Walthall, who was playing Cameron, had been on a terrific bat the night before and turned up at the studio looking ghastly and suffering from an imperial hangover.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Griffith immediately changed his plans : ” We can’t shoot him like that setting out,” he said. “We’ll shoot him coming back.” And it was done.

“Everything was so different in the old days,” said Lillian. ” There were no strict union rules then, of course, and everybody was adaptable; we all worked together to make a good film-and we took pride in working together. Films lost so much when talkies came in, I just felt I must leave Hollywood. So in 1930 I crone to New York-and played in Jed Harris’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya.'”

” But surely you did make one talking picture? ” I asked.

“Wasn’t it ‘ One Romantic Night,’ with Rod la Rocque, directed by Paul Stein? ,,

One Romantic Night – The Swan

At the mention of that name, Lillian’s face became (as Edmund Pearson described her ‘Lizzie Borden ” face in the play ” Nine, Pine St.”) .. as venomous and implacable as that of the great murderous queen in ‘ Agamemnon.’ ” ” I can’t bear to think of it,” she said. We agreed that it was the only stinker she had ever appeared in. She had, of course, not yet made ” Duel in the Sun.”

The White Sister

Lillian recalled her experiences with Ronald Colman, whom she had discovered as a small-part stage actor. In 1923 she formed her own film company with Henry King and (which may surprise those who think the current fashion to film in Italy is something new), took Colman to Italy to appear with her in her film of “The White Sister ” which she made there. In one scene, Colman, cast as the impetuous Italian lover, had to display burning passion as he tried to persuade Lillian, the nun of the title role, to break her vows. The scene was rehearsed over and over again. Mr. Colman’s display of passion was not even lukewarm. It seemed as if his inner self, clad in white flannels and brandishing an embarrassed tennis racquet, held him back, murmuring, ‘Oh,. I say, old man-look here ! That sort of thing’s all right for foreigners, but I mean to say …. ! ” In desperation, Lillian poured him half-a-tumblerful of brandy; in desperation, Mr. Colman drank it down, neat and in one gulp. A few minutes later, positively incandescent with passion and alcohol, he gave a performance so scorching that, when it reached the screen, women in the audience glowed with responsive rapture and swooned away. Out of the glass of brandy a star was born.

One of the reasons I stayed on in New York (apart from the delight I took in Lillian’s company) was that I was trying to get somebody to present my play of ‘Crime and Punishment ” there. The New York Theatre Guild took an option on it and we at once began to discuss casting. I wanted Lillian to play Katerina Ivanovna-the part Edith Evans had played in London-but could not think of an actor to play Raskolnikov. Lillian suggested Burgess Meredith, who was then appearing in “The Playboy of the Western World.”

There was a charming story going the rounds at the time. The New York Irish took as great exception to the play as the Irish in Ireland had done when it was first presented, and one night a crowd of Irish toughs gathered at the stage door and mobbed Burgess Meredith and his wife, Paulette Goddard, as they sat in their limousine. The finger of scorn was pointed at Miss Goddard and Mr. Meredith was challenged to ” get out and foight.” ” Don’t you do it, Buzz,” cried Paulette. “Just open the window and let me hit them with my diamond necklace.”

Lillian and I went to see Burgess to ask if there was any possibility of his being able to play in” Crime and Punishment.” For the time being, there was none : he planned to go to Dublin when the run of ” The Playboy ” ended, to appear there with Paulette in” Winterset.”

He did go to Dublin-and when I met him a year later he told me the play had not been very enthusiastically received. On the morning following the first night, a chambermaid entered their hotel bedroom bearing a breakfast tray and a bundle of newspapers. She put the newspapers at the foot of the bed and set down the breakfast tray. “There y’are now,” she said cosily. “Eat up yer breakfast before ye desthroy yerselves reading the notices.”

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith – promotional for ‘The Star-Wagon’

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An Interview with LILLIAN GISH

By Ronald Bowers

  • A Survey of 1982 Films Edited by FRANK N. MAGILL

There is simply one “First Lady” of American cinema, and she is Miss Lillian Gish. Her career in motion pictures is without equal. Along with her mentor, D. W. Griffith, she was a pioneer who created her own art form. Imitated by generations of performers, she has herself always been a pioneer, never an imitator. “D. W. Griffith was the father of film form and grammar,” she explains. “The French had hinted at the possibilities of film before him, but he put it all together first.” The same could be said of Lillian Gish and her self-evolved style of screen acting.

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

Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father, James Lee Gish, was a traveling salesman from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and her mother, Mary Robinson McConnell Gish, numbered among her ancestors the poet Emily Ward and President Zachary Taylor. Gish’s father’s work required the family to live in various cities before the turn of the century, and it was in Dayton, Ohio, that her sister, Dorothy, was born on March 11, 1898. Eventually, Mrs. Gish separated from her husband and took her two daughters to New York City to look for work. As Dorothy once explained in an interview: “We were practically destitute. [Mother] rented one of the old fashioned railroad apartments, and advertised for ‘genteel lady roomers.  One of the genteel ladies who rented a room was an actress [Dolores Lome], and after she had been with us a few weeks, she had an offer for a part in a road company production of East Lynne, provided she could find a small child of either sex to play the part of Little Willie. She asked Mother if she could borrow me for the role, and Mother was willing, and so, at four, I became Little Willie. Then Lillian got parts too, and so did Mother, and there we were, all three of us, actresses.”

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

Officially, Gish made her stage debut when she was five years old, in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a play called In Convict’s Stripes; as she recalls, “I took my first curtain call on the shoulders of the handsome leading man, Walter Huston.”

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

On rare occasions, the three Gishes were able to act together in the same play, but for the most part, they worked separately, with Mrs. Gish accompanying her younger daughter and Lillian being chaperoned by a family friend. During one period of unemployment, the Gishes worked at a candy concession in Brooklyn’s Fort George Amusement Park, where they were joined by another temporarily out-of-work family, the Smiths, consisting of mother Charlotte and three youngsters named Gladys, Lottie, and Jack. Gladys eventually became known as Mary Pickford.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

In 1905, nine-year-old Lillian was employed as a dancer with the Sarah Bernhardt stage company, then on tour in New York City, and Gish recalls that the divine Sarah “was kind, . . . but discipline was rigid in that company.” The Gishes continued to act in road-company productions, and 1912 found both Lillian and Dorothy in Baltimore. Gish remembers: “We weren’t children, but we weren’t grown-up either. Whenever we had saved up a nickel, we would go see Biograph pictures. They were the only ones we liked. So when we saw that our friend Gladys Smith was in a movie called Lena and the Geese (1912), we went to see it. However, we thought she must be in some kind of trouble if she was in the movies instead of acting in the theater, because we didn’t think movie acting was quite legitimate then. But later we learned that Lionel Barrymore worked there, and Mother said. ‘Well, if there’s a Barrymore there, it can’t be all that bad.'” Leaving Baltimore, the Gishes returned to New York City and paid a visit to the Biograph Studio at 11 East 14th Street to see their friend Mary Pickford who by then had appeared in more than one hundred motion pictures (mostly one-reelers) and had become Biograph’s most popular actress. Pickford introduced her two friends to the formidable D. W. Griffith, and that same afternoon, Gish says, he hired them at five dollars a day and began rehearsing them. “His rehearsal consisted of chasing us around the room and firing a gun filled with blanks at the ceiling to see how we could express fright. We thought we were in an insane asylum.”

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

Both Gish sisters worked as extras with Griffith’s stock company, and soon they were cast as sisters in leading roles in a melodrama entitled An Unseen Enemy (1912). Griffith then chose Lillian to play the sweatshop worker who is harrassed by hoodlums in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) important as an early example of Griffith’s expert directorial technique.

While the family welcomed the money—often their weekly salary in theater had been only ten dollars—Gish’s aspirations were always for the theater. Late in 1912, she signed with David Belasco to appear with Pickford in A Good Little Devil. The play opened in January, 1913, but shortly thereafter Lillian fell ill with ‘pernicious anemia.’ As was his practice during the winters. Griffith took his Biograph players, including Dorothy, to California. Before leaving. Griffith offered Lillian fifty dollars a week to join them upon her recuperation. Gish did giving up her theater ambitions for the time being to participate in a revolutionary era in motion-picture history.

DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish - background Robert Harron
DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish – background Robert Harron

From the very beginning of their association. Griffith never told Gish, or any of his performers, how to act. Gish says, “He never taught us how to act. He simply said study the human race. And he was right. That’s the best way to learn. And also one should play ever) game, like tennis, that one can. I took fencing lessons and all kinds of dancing lessons so that I learned to control the way my body moved. But nobody can teach acting. Just speak loud and clear and learn to have absolute control over your body and voice.”

Fine Arts Griffith Stars 2
Fine Arts – Griffith Stars Back Row: Dorothy Gish, Seena Owen, Norma Talmadge Middle Row: Robert Harron, Harry Aitken (producer), Sir Beerbohm-Tree, Owen Moore, Wilfred Lucas Front Row: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Constance Collier, Lillian Gish (Marfa in Sold For Marriage), Fay Tincher, DeWolfe Hopper Photograph – Raymond Lee of Roy George Association

From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for thepictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”

1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos - Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos – Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Gish perfected her craft in picture after picture, and in 1912 alone she appeared in three films with Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, most notably The New York Hat, which was based on the first screenplay written by the inimitable Anita Loos. Gish and Loos remained lifelong friends, and Gish recalls: “We called her Mrs. Spinoza’ because she was so wise; we didn’t open our mouths around her. She wrote stories and subtitles and was a talented, beautiful, and funny lady.”

Pickford soon left Griffith to establish her unique place in silent films, but she and Gish remained lifelong friends. “Mary always credited me with her successful career playing a child,” says Gish, “I told her to play a child. I had seen her play Essex the child in Little Lord Fauntleroy and I suggested she do a full-length film about a child. At the time, Marguerite Clark was successful playing children on the screen because she was tiny four feet, ten inches] and weighed only about ninety pounds. But Marguerite was dark and a different type, so I told Mary she should try it also. And she did.”

Many years later, the mature, retired Mary Pickford announced that she was going to burn the prints of all of her old films. Gish heard about it and intervened: “I told her she had no right to destroy her films. They don’t belong to you,’ I said. They belong to the world.’ And thank heavens she listened.” In 1913, Griffith starred Gish in a picture developed expressly for her talents — The Mothering Heart—then cast her as the young mother in his four reel epic, Judith of Betluilia ( 1913). When he left Biograph at the end of 1913, Lillian and Dorothy followed him to the Mutual Company. Gish quickly grew in popularity with the American public, and consequently Griffith cast her as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), a part originally intended for Blanche Sweet. The film remains a hallmark in American motion-picture history and in Gish’s career. “We shot that picture in nine weeks. We rehearsed it extensively and then shot it—every scene but one— in one take. We had to shoot Mae Marsh’s death scene twice because she forgot to wrap the Confederate flag around her waist.”

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

It had become Griffith’s practice to rehearse his actors repeatedly to save both money and film when shooting time came. “We rehearsed extensively and never with a script,” remembers Gish. “Nothing was written down. He called the part out to us, and it was up to us to find the character. During those nine weeks on The Birth of a Nation, we stopped only here and there so he could go out and get some more money. That film cost sixty-one thousand dollars, and he had only fifty thousand dollars, so he would borrow from anyone he could. One day Mother offered him three hundred dollars, andhe asked how much money she had in all. She said just that three hundred, and he refused to accept it. He always considered others before himself. And when he died, even though he was broke, he owed no one a penny. He was a true Southern gentleman.”

Thereupon followed Gish’s star years with Griffith: Intolerance (1916); Hearts of the World (1918), with her sister, Dorothy; Broken Blossoms (1919); Way Down East (1920) ; and Orphans of the Storm (1921). again with Dorothy.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

In Intolerance, Gish’s part was a small but pivotal one. Swathed in white, she was the mother rocking the cradle in the scene which linked the four part story together. Hearts of the World was a popular and important film, but Gish’s favorite among her films is Broken Blossoms, in which she starred to great acclaim with Richard Barthelmess. It was in this film that she gave her highly personal lyrical style its fullest  expression. By this time in their association, Griffith had complete confidence in Gish’s talent; “I give her an outline of what I hope to accomplish and let her work it out her own way. When she gets it, she has  something of her own. Of course she is imitated. A dozen actresses copy whatever she does and even get themselves up to look like her, which obliges her to change her methods.”

Gish worked in two more Griffith films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, and then, by mutual consent, she struck out on her own. It was simply a matter of economics. She was worth more than Griffith could pay her, and as he had done with other actresses before her who had gained stardom under his aegis—Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh — he suggested that Gish should seek the fortune and acclaim she so richly deserved. “Thus,” she says, “in the most friendly way, an artistic and business association of many years was broken off as casually as it had begun.” In 1922, Gish signed an eight-year contract with Inspiration Pictures for $1,250 a week plus fifteen percent of the profits and story approval. Her first Inspiration film was The White Sister (1923), directed by Henry King. Gish played a nun, and the picture was shot in Italy during a period of seven months.

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

Shortly before the cast and crew were scheduled to sail for Europe, there was still no leading man. Gish recalls: “Ronald Colman was appearing on Broadway in La Tendresse, with Ruth Chatterton. The photographer James Abbe, who was going to photograph the stills for The White Sister, saw him in the play and told me about him. and so Henry and I went to see him. I thought he would be an excellent choice for the part of the Italian Captain Severi, and so we went to talk with the play’s producer, Henry Miller. That was on a Thursday. Miller graciously released Colman, and we sailed on Saturday.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and Ronald Colman in Rome during the filming of The White Sister - 1923 — with Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman.

“Colman was a charming man, but there was one scene which caused him difficulty. He was British to the core, and the scene called for him to lose his temper like an Italian. He was too British to unbend. So one night at dinner. I suggested to Henry that we give him too much to drink and shoot the scene that night. We did,” she laughs, “and he finally did unbend.”

Romola (1924), also with Colman, was Gish’s second and final picture for Inspiration; she had experienced contractual difficulties with Charles H. Duell, the company’s president, from the beginning. She signed an $800,000, six picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the films were to be made during a two-year period, and she was to have  approval of both story and director.

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

At M-G-M, Lillian worked closely with Irving G. Thalberg. Her first picture for them was La Boheme (1926), about which she says, “I adored Irving from the beginning. Next to Griffith, I respected him the most. Louis B. Mayer was the businessman, but it was Irving who was so sensitive and artistic. And he was greatly overworked. When I went to M-G-M, I asked him to screen The Big Parade (1925) for me, and after seeing it, I asked him to get me the director [King Vidor] and the leading man [John Gilbert] for La Boheme. I also requested photographer Hendrick Sartov, who had photographed a number of my Griffith films and who had invented a soft-focus lens which he called the ‘Lillian Gish lens.’ Irving agreed, and he let me do it my own way.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)4

“I told my friend Madame Freddie [dramatist Madame Frederick de Gresac] to adapt the story for me [it was based on the novel The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1848), by Henri Murger], and she worked on it, and then Frances Marion took over and wrote the screenplay. Irving was wonderful throughout. John Gilbert couldn’t have been nicer to work with. He was never any trouble.” However, some M-G-M practices did distract her. “Griffith never used mood music on his sets, but when I went to M-G-M for La Boheme, I realized it was an accepted practice to have mood musicians playing while the actors were acting. I love music, but not when I’m working. It distracted me, but the others could not do without it. Also, I was used to extensive rehearsals before actual filming began, but they did not rehearse at M-G-M. It embarrassed them to rehearse. They would do a scene, and if it wasn’t right, they would shoot it again, and again if necessary. Since I was in the minority, I went along and did it their way.”

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

Years after the release of La Boheme, King Vidor wrote that he suspected that Gish had used cotton balls in her mouth for her famous death scene. Gish replies: “It was absolutely not true. I think he must have been thinking of Helen Hayes when she played Queen Victoria as an old lady, because there it was appropriate. But Mimi in La Boheme was emaciated and dying of tuberculosis. The last thing you would do would be to fill out the cheeks. They should be sunken in. I went to the county hospital with a priest to see the tuberculosis patients, and in my death scene I endeavored to imitate their thinness and their sunken cheeks, exactly the look of someone in that condition. That was simply more of studying the human race, like Griffith had advised me years before. I don’t know where Vidor got that idea, but nonetheless, he supposedly had to look away while shooting the scene because hehad tears in his eyes. He was a talented, gentle man.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

Gish’s second M-G-M feature was The Scarlet Letter (1926), and once several obstacles were overcome, her working experience with Thalberg was as always a rewarding one. The main obstacle was that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel had been banned by a number of women’s clubs and church groups.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

“I went to Mr. Mayer and said I wanted to do The Scarlet Letter: he said it was impossible because of the ban. I said. ‘If I can get the ban lifted, will you let me do it? He said yes, and we did it. I went to Irving, and he screened The Story of Gosta Berling (1924) for me. The film starred Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson, and when I saw Lars’s face I said. There’s my Dimsdale. I wanted Victor Seastrom as director because I had seen him direct something at M-G-M and I thought he came nearer to re-creating the tempo of our own people in 1640, which was the time period of The Scarlet Letter. People moved at a slower pace then, and he suited the Puritan image. He was a wonderful man, a beautiful director, an artist. And again Irving agreed with my every decision. I think it relieved him of some of his heavy workload.” Gish’s triumphant portrayal of Hester Prynne has been described best by critic Pauline Kael: “Her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was another, who can move like Lillian Gish: it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it!”

Seastrom directed Gish in another remarkable performance in The Wind (1928), which also costarred Lars Hanson, but the arrival of sound prevented that picture from gaining the audience it deserved. The arrival of sound caused Gish to reassess her career, and she ended her contract with M-G-M after The Wind, the fifth of the proposed six films.

THE WIND, Lillian Gish, 1928 HC8WJ8

Always a dedicated artist, Gish had described vividly the vicissitudes of an acting career in an interview in 1927: “Perhaps much is lost in selecting an acting career. Personal contacts and friendships must be neglected because long and irregular working hours eliminate the possibility of planned social gatherings. You must be terrifically earnest and interested in your work and not be swayed from the path which leads to your desired goal. You must live with the story you are going to appear in from the moment the scenario goes into the writing until the time it is completed, breathing with the character until you become it. The life of a motion-picture actress might be likened to a billowing wave in the mighty Pacific, with new waves constantly rushing on and pushing it to shore. It takes strength and sureness to successfully battle in the big pond and to keep your place there.” This dedication to acting is the primary reason why Gish never married, she never did believe that an actress would be a good wife. You’ve simply got to be one or the other — never both. I would have been a very bad wife.”

Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928

In striving to maintain her place in the “big pond.” Gish considered several projects which never materialized. She spent considerable time discussing with French director Abel Gance a production of Joan of Arc. “‘We planned to shoot it on actual locations in France, and the French government was going to finance it. but I had contract obligations which interfered, and we never got to do it. “I also worked for a year with Max Reinhardt and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal on a project called The Miracle Girl. It was the story of a peasant girl who could not even write her name but in ecstasy exhibited signs of the stigmata. It simply had to be done as a silent picture or it would have been ridiculous, so the arrival of sound prevented our ever doing it.”

Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan

Gish signed a contract with United Artists to star in three films of her choosing, making her talking debut in One Romantic Night (1930), an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play – 1920: The Swan, (1929) costarring Conrad Nagel and Rod LaRocque. Gish’s voice was immediately accepted by the critics, but the picture was not. and Gish cancelled her contract and returned to the stage.

1930 promo - Nine Pine Street
Nine Pine Street

Gish starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1930). followed by Nine Pine Street (1933) and Camille (1936). Motion pictures took second place in her career, and more plays followed: Hamlet (1936). in which she was Ophelia to John Gielgud’s melancholy Dane: Life with Father 1947), another personal triumph; and Crime and Punishment (1947).

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

Her occasional work in films included two supporting roles in David O. Selznick productions. In the extravagant Wagnerian Western. Duel in the Sun (1946). she played the wife of rancher Lionel Barrymore and the mother of feuding brothers played by Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck. In Portrait of Jennie (1948). she played a nun. Her role in Duel in the Sun brought Gish her only Academy Award nomination. Recalling her role in the latter. Gish observes: ‘”Years earlier Lionel Barrymore had played my grandfather, then my father, and now my husband. I suppose if he had lived long enough, he would have played my son!”

Duel in The Sun, (behind the scenes) Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, on Set, 1946

Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.”

In 1953. Gish played one of her favorite roles—the woman searching for her lost spirit in Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful. Originally, she had starred in the television version for NBC-TV’s Philco Hour.

Philco Television Playhouse Lillian Gish Bert Lytell

It received excellent reviews, and Gish notes that “It was the first television film that the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives.” Foote expanded the television version for the stage, and Gish repeated her role when it opened in November. 1953. to some of the best reviews of her career. The stage version costarred Jo Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint and was directed by Vincent Donahue. Many critics called it the greatest performance of Gish’s career.

Two years later, Gish had an excellent film role as the eccentric old maid in The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton from a script by James Agee. “Charles Laughton went to the Museum of Modern Art and asked to see all of my old films with D. W. Griffith. Then he called and asked me to tea with James Agee and several others. He said, ‘When I was starting out in this business, people used to go to a movie and sit up in their seats and look at the screen. Now they go to eat popcorn. I want to sit them up in their seats again.’ After hearing that, I was convinced I should do the picture with him. Once we began work on it, we would sometimes ask him questions about what he meant by this or that, and he would exclaim, ‘Oh, oh, what am I doing wrong?’ He had no belief in himself. If he had, he would have been a great director.” Gish describes Robert Mitchum, the star of The Night of the Hunter, as a “very underrated actor; he was charming to work with.”

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

In 1956, Lillian and Dorothy starred together in a stage production of The Chalk Garden, and in 1960, Lillian starred in a televsion version of Truman Capote’s first play, The Grass Harp. Capote had written that play for the Gish sisters, and they both had considered appearing in its original stage production in 1953. Gish explains why that did not come to pass: “Dorothy and I were interested in starring in The Grass Harp, but the producers prevented our doing so. We met with them, and they said they had signed scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones to do the sets. We both liked Jones very much, and since the play was a kind of fairy tale, we knew he would provide the right touch. But after the meeting with the producers, we talked with Jones, and he said he had never been approached. We knew we couldn’t work with people like that, and we never did. When it was produced, they used a tree that Die Gotterdammerung could not have dominated. The  production failed, but it could have been done well. Eventually I did get to appear in the television version.”

More stage vehicles followed for Gish: All the Way Home (1963), Romeo and Juliet (1965), Anya (1965), and I Never Sang for My Father (1968). She also appeared in the film version of Graham Greene’s The Comedians (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Lillian Gish and Richard Burton - The Comedians
Lillian Gish and Richard Burton – The Comedians

Finally, she fulfilled two goals by starring in the 1968 television presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace. That was another play originally written for the Gish sisters, but their run-of-the play contracts for Life with Father had prevented them from starring in the original version. Gish happily signed to do the television version not only to finally get a chance to play the role but also because it afforded her the opportunity of costarring with one of her dearest friends, Helen Hayes.

opening of uncle vanya june 4 1973 h hayes l gish a

“I met Helen through John Barrymore and playwright Edward ‘Ned’ Sheldon in 1930. One season, she, Ruth Gordon, and I were all appearing on Broadway in different plays, and on Saturday evenings after our performances we would all spend the night at Helen’s house in Nyack. I became the godmother to her son James MacArthur [Alexander Woollcott was the godfather], and years later I became godmother to Jamie’s son, Helen’s grandchild. Helen is a wonderful lady and a wonderful friend.”‘

james macarthur new-york-usa 19 jun 1960

Gish’s greatest film performances were in films made before the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and her only nomination was as Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun in 1946. Quite appropriately, the Academy Board of Governors voted her an honorary award in 1971 for “Superlative Artistry and for Distinguished Contributions to the Progress of Motion Pictures.” At the awards ceremony, Melvyn Douglas delivered the following presentation speech which had been written by screenwriter Leonard Spigelglass: “Miss Lillian, as D. W. Griffith used to call her, is the youngest human being in the theater tonight if youth be measured by zest, enthusiasm, and sheer physical strength. This beautiful woman so frail and pink and so overwhelmingly feminine has endured as a working artist from the birth of the movies to their transfiguration. For underneath this wisp of a creature there is hard steel. In the hundreds of films she has made, she and her beloved sister, Dorothy, coped with danger and peril beyond measure. . . .Miss Lillian has written a book about all this sternly called The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Note the order. In her dedication she wrote:

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

To my mother who gave me love, To my sister who taught me to laugh, To my father who gave me insecurity To D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.

Lillian Gish and Melvyn Douglas at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards -1971

High time we dedicated something to her. And so, to Lillian Gish, who has touched all our lives with her gifts, her dignity, her funny little smile and her immense invulnerability, the members of the Academy and millions and millions of people in the audience say, You have taught and keep teaching us that time is an ally, that laughter and tears coexist, that your starring light is luminous and gentle, yet pierces the darkness. Come and get your long overdue Oscar, Miss Gish, Miss Lillian Gish, Miss Lillian.”

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish - Griffith Stamp ceremony
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish – Griffith Stamp ceremony

Two years later, on the centenary of D. W. Griffith’s birth, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor as a result of Gish’s personal campaign to have him so remembered.

signed promotional full cast photo - a wedding

Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”

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

In 1982, Gish was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, with President and Mrs. Reagan as host and hostess. Tennessee Williams, a former recipient, was there, and at a small, private gathering in the Red Room, Williams said, “You know, I wrote [A] Streetcar [Named Desire] for you, and now I can tell the story.”

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

Gish did know the story, but years earlier, when she went to see Jessica Tandy in the original stage production, she did not. She explains: “You see, he had written a one-act play called Portrait of a Madonna and dedicated it to me, but I could not appear in it because Mother was ill at the time. I was playing Ophelia in Hamlet, and I went to see a matinee of A Streetcar Named Desire. I went backstage to congratulate Jessica on her performance. When I did, she replied, I have you to thank for it.’ I didn’t know what she meant, but later that night at Club 21, Jessica’s husband, Hume Cronyn, explained to me that Streetcar was in fact a revised and expanded version of Portrait of a Madonna, which I had had to turn down.”

Lillian Gish NY apartment

Gish is a youthful, vital octogenarian who, when prompted, can dispense wisdom worth noting by her juniors. Of her broken home, she remarks philosophically: “From my Mother, we got great security — the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father, we got great insecurity, and. as I grow older. I wonder which was more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their character.”

Of the prerequisites of her chosen profession she says: “I think the things necessary in my profession are these: taste, talent, and tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.”

Finally, and most important, of her undying zest for life and curiosity she states: “In all my years, and goodness knows how many pictures, I’ve never lost interest in acting, and I’m still learning. How can anyone learn all there is to know about the human race?”

Ronald Bowers

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Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

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