Dorothy Gish, Actress, Is Dead – The New York Times – June 6, 1968

Dorothy Gish, Actress, Is Dead

In Theater and Films 50 Years

Starred With Sister, Lillian, in Griffith Silent Classics — Many Broadway Roles

The New York Times – June 6, 1968

RAPALLO. Italy, June 5 (AP)

-Dorothy Gish, one of the two sisters. who entertained motion picture audiences and theatergoers for more than a half-century, died here last night. She was 70 years old. Her sister, Lillian, who has been making a movie in Rome, was at her bedside. Dorothy had been in a clinic here for nearly two years. She died of bronchial pneumonia. The United States consulate in Genoa said that Miss Gish’s body would be cremated and that the ashes would be returned to the United States.

Extra in Films in 1912

Although Dorothy and Lillian often worked together and had careers that were in many ways parallel, they were not a team. In the highly competitive world of acting, they remained a harmonious pair of sisters who admired each other.

The Gish sisters reached the peak of popularity during the silent screen days, but Dorothy was only 4 and Lillian 6 when they went on stage professionally.

They started in movies in 1912 under the wing of D.W. Griffith, the grandmaster of silent-screen films. They got their job through Mary Pickford, a friend whom they only knew by her real name, Gladys Smith, when they sought her out at Griffith’s Biograph Company at 11 East 14th Street in New York. They had seen Gladys in a movie and thought they would like to try the new medium.

Griffith started them as extras. In order to ten them apart at first, he had Lillian wear a blue ribbon and Dorothy, then 14, a red one. He was so impressed with their talents that he took them to California, for his customary West Coast fall season at $50 a week, a sound wage for those silent days.

‘Familiar With Tempo’

“Mr. Griffith spent months in rehearsing his players and plots before a camera turned,” Dorothy recalled years later.

“By the time a photoplay went into actual production, an actor was thoroughly familiar with his own part as well as the tempo, approach and reactions of other members of the cast.

“Most of Mr. Griffith’s films were shot without scripts and were improvised in the manner of the commedia dell’arte,” she continued. “Individual scenes were staged and re-staged until a maximum effect was realized and footage was closely checked with a stop watch. This saved large sums in raw film and time and kept production cost from soaring.”

During her years in films, Miss Gish appeared in “An Unseen Enemy,” “Hearts of the World,” “ The Orphans of the Storm,” “Tip-Toes,” ”London,” “Nell Gwynn,” “Romola,” and “Madame Pompadour.” Of all her screen roles, Miss Gish preferred playing the Little Disturber in “Hearts of the World,” which Griffith made in England and France during World War I.

In 1918, she worked for a while in New York with Paramount Pictures, making “Battling Jane,” “I’ll Get Him Yet” and “Remodeling Her Husband.” The last had Richard Barthelmess (***Not James Rennie?) as her leading man and her sister as director.

After 1928 and the advent of talkies, she made only three films, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,” (1944) “Centennial Summer” (1946) and “The Whistle at Eaton Falls” (1951).

As much as she was gratified by her film career, Miss Gish’s first love, as with many performers was the stage. Her string of credits through 1956, was long and respectable.

They included Fay Hilary in “Young Love,” (1928); Maria in “The Inspector General” (1930), Emily Dickinson in “Brittle Heaven” (1934), Fanny in “Autumn Crocus” (1932), Fanny Dixwell Holmes in “The Magnificent Yankee” (1946), and Mrs. Gillis in “The Man” (1950), her last Broadway role.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 69

She succeeded Dorothy Stickney for almost a year in the starring role of Vinnie, the patient mother, in the Broadway hit “Life With Father.” In 1956,she starred in “The Chalk Garden,” at The Spa in Saratoga N.Y.

Dorothy Gish was born March 11, 1898. She once told how she came to her stage career:

“Mother came up from Massillon, Ohio, where we were born, partly to look for our father, who had left us, and partly to try to earn a living for all three of us. We were practically destitute. She 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, 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 … to play the part of Little Willie.”

Mrs. Gish found someone – Dorothy. Four years later, in 1906, she made her debut at the Lincoln Square Theater with Fiske O’Hara in “Dion O’ Dare.”

She played juvenile parts until 1912 when she and Lillian went into the movies.

Miss Gish was once described, much later in life, by a writer who called her ”a deep-voiced woman … with an unabated zest for life, a faintly ribald sense of humor and an uncompromising faculty for self-appraisal.”

In 1951, when she was making “The Whistle at Eaton Falls,” she said that she particularly enjoyed making the film because it “reminded me so much of the way we made pictures in the old days of Mr. Griffith.” She explained further: “To me, there’s too much spit’n’ polish about today’s film technique. When Lillian and I were in silent films, we did every thing for ourselves – mother made our costumes, we did our own hair, put on our own make-up.

“Nowadays, you have a couple of people getting you into costume, another couple fussing around on your hair, others with your face. You feel, somehow, like Marie Antoinette-even with the best will in the world, rather aloof and removed.”

Miss Gish loved to travel and she stipulated that her career should not interfere with her wanderings. She lived for months in England, Italy, Yugoslavia and Africa. She also had a home at Wilson Point, near Newport, Conn.

In 1920, she and James Rennie, a New York actor, eloped to Greenwich, Conn. The marriage ended in divorce 15 years later.

*** Admin. Note: Dorothy Gish had James Rennie as her leading man in “Remodeling Her Husband,” not Richard Barthelmess.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 2
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish in costume]; ca. 1920s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.464

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Dorothy Gish is dead - The New York Times June 6 1968
Dorothy Gish is dead – The New York Times June 6 1968

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Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper – By ANITA LOOS (The New York Times – September 14, 1980)

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

The New York Times – September 14, 1980

Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper

By ANITA LOOS

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish worked together in the early days of the motion picture industry. Miss Loos, whose most recent book is “The Talmadge Girls, is now at work on “The Hollywood Nobody Knows.”

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

‘Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared.’

Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures. Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, (younger by two years) had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time. motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals; integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.

Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art. Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s ”Birth of a Nation,,, Lillian plays the Northern Belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who “endlessly, rocks the cradle in “Intolerance,” a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience. Lillian played the pathetic adulteress of “The Scarlet Letter”; the wayward Mimi of “La Boheme”; the helpless waif of “Broken Blossoms,,; and she costarred with her sister, Dorothy, in “Orphans of the Storm.” These films are occasionally shown today, and largely due to Lillian’s performances they still retain their freshness and vitality. The list of Lillian’s films goes on and on. Her latest major release, and incidentally her 100’th movie, was Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,’, filmed in the late 1970’s. And today, as the most elegant and youthful of grande dames, Lillian is at work on a television feature being filmed in California.

Robert Altman 100 film 76

Lillian and I have been friends for almost 50 years. Our first encounter was by remote control. I had just mailed my first scenario to the Biograph Company in New York from my home in San Diego. With beginner’s luck, it was directed by D.W. Griffith himself, with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore playing the leads. In those days, D. W. used his entire troupe when extras were required, and in a crowd entering a church are Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Later on, the Biograph Company moved to Hollywood and D.W. asked me to join them as permanent scenarist. When I first arrived at the studio, Lillian was away on location, but I met Dorothy. She was a bit of a clown, both on screen and off, and we became cronies, but it was some time before I really got to know Lillian. I never worked on her pictures. My stories were largely satires in which Lillian would have been out of place. Satire requires a touch of malice and of this Lillian has none. Dorothy and I loved to tease her by pretending she was “stuffy,” which wasn’t true. But she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous. There was no lack of fun in Lillian’s whereabouts; we became good friends. Lillian’s beauty; the benevolence in her smile; the wide blue eyes and golden hair, have always suggested an angel that belongs at the top of the Christmas tree. But of late, listening to Lillian on the trends that films have taken is to invite an Angel of Wrath into your parlor. Her viewpoint on films has been unique; she considers them as Power; a power that generates energy as great as that of Arab oil or the nuclear stations. “There’s no question,” she says, “that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience. And the ‘entertainment’ foisted on our young people today is terribly disturbing.” “It is hard to understand the prevalence of degrading movies in view of the fact that they are far out-grossed at the box office by such legitimate entertainment as ‘The Turning Point’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ It seems that they must be the product of some evil intention.”

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish housing secretary moon landrieu 1980

Recently Lillian and I sat in my New York living room, discussing the changing viewpoints since we were teen-agers at the old Biograph Company in Hollywood. She recalled with a sense of pride that her sister, Dorothy, had once turned down a contract from Paramount of a million dollars to make eight comedy films. It was an offer that would forever banish the ghost of poverty that haunts every actor, but Dorothy turned Paramount down.

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

“Oh, no,” said she, “to have a million dollars at my age might ruin my character.” Mother Gish’s training in common sense had taken root. Looking back on those early days I remembered that Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared. It was Lillian alone who took those silent flickers seriously. We others looked on them as a fad that would soon lose public interest, as did those projectors of snapshots that were gathering dust on every parlor table. Even the fact that we were working with D. W. Griffith, who would one day be acclaimed a genius, failed to impress us; as it did Griffith himself for a time.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

As a young actor he had dreamed of becoming a playwright; a modern Shakespeare who would bring poetry to the Broadway stage. His first play was so dismal a failure that D. W. realized the theater was not for him. He returned to picture-making with a resigned bitterness that seemed to mark the end of his career. But Lillian had a remarkable vision of a future toward which D. W. might be heading. Watching him direct, she began to sense that D. W. was viewing his effects with the eyes of a poet. It took Lillian a long time and thousands of feet of film to build up D. W. ‘s satisfaction in his work or to recognize his own unmatched talent. It was Lillian’s delight in watching rushes in their projection room and her appreciation of certain subtleties of direction that raised D. W.’s opinion of films and, little by little, released his inspiration. Lillian grew to be sort of an all-purpose collaborator to D. W.; she acted roles of every type and even coached other actresses when D. W. felt a need of female intuition. Which brings to mind an episode in which a certain star playing “Judith of Bethulia” had a torrid love scene.

To D. W. it was a touchy situation, for Judith’s costume was scant and D. W. didn’t want to flaunt verity by adding to it. So he ordered a placard to be propped against the Babylonian setting which stated viz., “During Judith’s love scenes the actress was chaperoned, off-screen, by her mother.” I may have had some part in the removal of that placard, but as I remember both Lillian and I giggled over D. W.’s prudery. Such was the “porno” of that innocent day. But on reflection, it now appears that much of the sensitivity in D. W .’s work may have been rooted in what was to my irreverent view a lack of “sophistication.” D. W. grew to consult with Lillian more and more, even on lighting and the cutting and editing of scenes. He told her, “You know more about films than I do.” And once when D. W. was forced to go on a trip to raise money. He turned over an entire production to Lillian. Her experience served to increase Lillian’s awe of the medium and her respect for its infinite capabilities “which,” says Lillian, “we haven’t yet even begun to realize.” Absorption in work kept D. W. and Lillian as close as if they were sweethearts, which the public, always ready to jump to wrong conclusions, decided they were. But D. W., in spite of his sensitivity to all human emotions, gave little thought to his personal affairs. Early in his career he had married an actress from whom he was divorced several years before he even met Lillian; she never even met D. W.’s wife. At any rate, Lillian had no time for romance, unless it was taking place on film .

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke
Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

Lillian’s devotion to her mother required much of her time and energy. For Mother Gish had suffered from a stroke that confined her to a life of inactivity. And, with disarming pride, she chose to think that nobody but the girls could manipulate a wheelchair. Meanwhile Dorothy had married the film actor James Rennie, and her husband required most of her attention. So for years it was Lillian’s chore (and her delight) to take Mother Gish window shopping whenever duties at the studio permitted. While other film stars were indulging in a succession of husbands, fiances, and love affairs, Lillian has kept aloof from all such involvements. And this is not due to any lack of opportunity. Suitors have pursued Lillian all her life, and in her fan mail, the love letters outnumber all the rest.

orphans of the storm - lillian gish is henriette girard - promo wb

I recall a comment on Lillian’s sex appeal made by Cedric Gibbons, our set designer at M-G-M. One day he happened to overhear a group of girls discussing sex appeal, of which M-G-M had a corner on the market, viz. Garbo, Crawford, Del Rio, Shearer, Loy, et al. Cedric interrupted the discussion. “What does any girl know about the things that excite men?” he chided. “There’s more sex appeal in Lillian Gish’s fingertips than in all you flamboyant sexpots rolled together.” They subsided and gave Cedric the decision. After all, he was married to Dolores Del Rio and knew whereof he spoke.

A time finally came in the association of Lillian and Griffith when her box-office value reached astronomical proportions. And D. W., all of whose earnings were poured back into his films, persuaded Lillian to accept one of her many offers. To be separated after their three years of idyllic collaboration was heartbreaking.

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

After their parting, when Lillian’s career was at that high plateau from which it has never descended, D. W. made a confession to a writer which she later quoted in a memoir.

“I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” said D. W. “But D. W.,” gasped the writer, “Lillian didn’t leave you … you chucked her out!”

“I ‘chucked her out’ because I was cheating her of the fortune she could earn with another producer. I allowed money to come between us.”

“But you were only thinking of her.” “I was thinking of my own ego. Lillian never thought of money. I did! ” The friendship between D. W. and Lillian remained as strong as ever. And when D. W. in his later years married a childish little bride, Lillian assumed a sort of guardianship that included both bride and groom. D. W. needed Lillian in yet another capacity. He had become an alcoholic.

Foremost among the heritage of Lillian’s pioneer ancestry is her pride and devotion to her country. “The time was,” she explains, “when I used to visit Europe every year to see my foreign friends and study their work. Those days are over. Now all my friends visit America because they know it to be the best and freest place on earth. I need go no further than the Algonquin to visit them.” “As to the future of films, I take heart that the theme of D. W .’s “Birth of a Nation” is just as vital today as when it was filmed. Only recently there was an active demonstration in a San Francisco theater where the “Birth” was shown. And there are other issues of American life just as dramatic as our Civil War. Hollywood has never filmed the dramatic story of Thomas Jefferson which culminated in our Constitution.”

“If Americans must be materialistic, we possess resources, opportunities, luxuries, comforts and gadgetry of which our pioneers never dreamed. But we’ve lost our self-esteem. Let’s strive to get it back.”

“We don’t need to be ‘born again’ with infantile thinking that has brought about the sorry state we’re in today. We need to regain the pioneer spirit of our beginnings. . . a respect of our ideals that will bring a measure of hope, appreciation and joy to our moving picture screens once more.”

NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-2
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-2
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction

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Then and Now – Lillian Gish – By Seymour Peck (The New York Times 1960)

Then and Now – Lillian Gish

By Seymour Peck

The New York Times – Sunday, April 17, 1960

AT 6, Lillian Gish became an actress, not out of love, but out of necessity. “We were very poor,” she says,” and the job paid $10 a week.” Today at 61, Miss Gish is still an actress, not out of necessity, but out of love.

When her close friend Mary Pickford phoned her recently, Miss Gish told her she had been working very hard “I was on television, doing ‘The Grass Harp’ for ‘The Play of the Week, ‘” Miss Gish said. We had twelve days to learn it and do it. The last day we worked twenty-two hours.” A note of pride entered her voice. “I’m still the iron horse if I can work twenty two hours.” The “iron horse,’ looked slender, dreamy, fragile and wistful in “The Grass Harp” and was cheered by TV critics like some new acting discovery. But the sweet, gentle, innocent maiden lady Miss Gish portrayed on TV was, to some viewers, only a mature rendering of the characterization that made her one of the immortals of the movies in the great silent days, thirty to forty-five years ago.

The Gish image first emerged in the films of the pioneering director D. W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation,” Hearts of the World,” Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm”-and then took on –a dazzling, starry glitter in such post … Griffith romances of the Twenties as .. The White Sister,” Romola,” “La Boheme,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and The Wind.”

The images tell you what we tried for.” Miss Gish said recently in her quietly elegant living room on East Fifty-seventh Street. “The essence of femininity. Mostly, in those movies, I was a virgin. We tried for virginity, in mind, in looks, in body, in movement. “Not that I enjoyed this-to attract and hold the interest of an audience with nothing but goodness is difficult; goodness becomes dull so quickly. It’s so much easier to win an audience with a little wickedness.

I was lucky with Sean O’Casey. When I did his ‘Within the Gates’ on the stage in 1934, I didn’t have to work half so hard as I used to in movies. I was The Young Whore and the audience was interested before the curtain even went up …

“That  virginal character hadn’t anything to do with me,” Miss Gish observed matter of-factly. Yet it appealed to, and deeply touched, millions of Americans, Europeans, Asians-and possibly some Eskimos and Hottentots -as few portrayals have since movies began.

THE pretty, helpless, virtuous and spiritual girl tossed about by a cruel world, was a triumphant creation, so eloquent as to make language almost unnecessary. And how cruel the world was: constantly in her movies MissGish suffered and was buffeted about by outrageous fortune. She was beaten to death, or ravaged by consumption, or driven out into a blizzard or persecuted by a narrow minded community. She might find love, but only to lose it.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish - ice floe scenes (Way Down East)
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

All this anguish brought tears and sympathy from the most hardened audiences. When one saw a Gish movie, the highest praise he could bestow was, .. Gee, did I cry!”

Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898, Miss Gish does not remember becoming an actress six years later, nor even wanting to become one. “It all happened before my memory,”  she said. Her father and mother brought her and her younger sister Dorothy to New York by way of Dayton, and Baltimore, Md., where the father had a small candy store. In New York her parents separated and to support herself and her two small girls, Mrs. Gish got a job acting with a Twenty third Street stock company.

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

“Mother was getting $15 a week and we were living on it, Miss Gish said. “We had one room, on Eighth Avenue around Twenty-first Street. At night she’d put us to sleep and go to the theatre. Baby sitters? Oh, no, she’d just leave us, there wasn’t anything else to do..

“Matinee days she’d take us with her, and one day an actress who was going out on the road stopped in at the dressing room, saw me, and said to mother, ‘If you’d let me have her. -‘ They needed a child in her company, and I looked right for it.”

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

LILLIAN. golden – haired and wide eyed, went traveling in a typical blood-and-thunder melodrama of the day, In Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time Dorothy, who was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy, in ‘East Lynne.” Each child earned $10 a week . .

The next year, 1905, mother and daughters were able to get roles together in one touring show. “We grew up this way,” Miss Gish said. “all around the country. At first mother had to teach us our parts but then she taught us to read and to write-in our dressing rooms.

We were educated this way: if we went to a town, say Detroit, mother took us to an auto factory, to see how it was all done. If we were playing in the South, she took us on a street car out of the city to cotton fields, to pick a little cotton, to watch a cotton gin. At Gettysburg she took us out to the battlefield with her history book in her hand and we had our history lesson right on the spot.” we had a wonderful mother,” Miss Gish went on. “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 the more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters, to make them know responsibility and meet the world head-on. ‘I didn’t use to feel this way. But an earIy insecurity and learning what to do with it and conquering it-this can bring maturity and contentment later on.” As children, Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith. In summers, between road tours, the Gishes and the Smiths-Gladys, her mother, sister and brother-sometimes shared an apartment in New York to save on rent. In 1912, returning from the road, Lillian and Dorothy went to look up Gladys at the Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. It was with some difficulty that they found their friend. She had changed her name to Mary Pickford. A fantastic new world – movies was opening up to Mary under the guidance of D.W. Griffith. Lillian made her screen debut as an extra in a Mary Pickford movie. The next year David Belasco engaged Lillian for her first Broadway play, “A Good Little Devil,’ in which Miss Pickford again had the lead. From Broadway, Miss Gish followed D. W. Griffith to California, to become the very symbol of pure womanhood in his movies. She shared with him the excitement of discovering and shaping a new art form, of seeing it grow, of experimenting with ideas, stories, techniques.

We worked wild hours, Saturdays, Sundays. There wasn’t any place as interesting as the studio, Miss Gish said. Everyone just lived for those pictures.” Miss Gish was a member of the Griffith company from 1913 to 1922. In time an awareness that the public had made a star of her came upon Griffith. “He told me to go out,” she said. “He said, ‘You know about as much as I do. I can’t pay you the money you’re worth, you go out and get it.

Late in 1922 Miss Gish helped organize the first American company to shoot a movie in Italy. The movie was “The White Sister.” It cost $270,000, eventually took in $4,000,000-and Miss Gish had a financial, aswell as artistic, stake in it. , Through the Twenties her career flourished. Gish, Garbo and Mary Pickford-some historians regard these as the three great women’s names of the decade. Miss Gish ultimately undertook her first talking picture. “One Romantic Night” was a light, sophisticated comedy from a Molnar play, “The Swan.” Cast as a cold princess Miss Gish must have surprised that multitude which cherished her as a helpless, beaten-down poor innocent. It was 1930, a troubled year in the United States. The movie did not succeed. Perhaps the age of innocence had passed for both America and Miss Gish.

The actress came back to New York. One night she had dinner with George Jean Nathan, Ruth Gordon and Jed Harris. Out of that evening came an invitation from Harris to play Helena in a revival of “Uncle Vanya!’ By her own choice Miss Gish was not starred in the production, afraid that a theatre audience would look on her as another “Miss Hollywood and hurl things at me from across the footlights.”

But the Chekhov revival and its leading actress both came through extraordinarily well. Miss Gish went on to other fine plays and performances in the theatre. “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father,” which she played for more than a year to Chicago’s delight. Since the early Forties she has accepted occasional, interesting character roles in movies. Her television bow came early; she starred in “The Late Christopher Bean” in 1949. Miss Gish’s latest movie – John Huston’s Western ‘The Unforgiven’ in which she is a pioneer woman who raises a foundling, Audrey Hepburn, in Texas around 1885. Miss Gish was intrigued by a role that was different from the ethereal ones of the old days. “I tried to make the character a Grant Wood,” she said, strong in spirit, strong in body. She carries a gun and yet is maternal and tender just woman.” CURRENTLY Miss Gish is working on a biography of her movie mentor, D. W. Griffith. She lives alone. She has never married and says she does not regret it.

“I think being a good wife is a twenty-four hour a day job. And certainly I haven’t lacked for male companionship in my life. I’ve had much more than I’ve deserved-wonderful, wonderful men and wonderful minds. I’m greatly indebted to George Jean Nathan, his great knowledge, his fine mind. Through him I knew Mencken and all the American writers of the Twenties as friends, and later on the writers of Europe.’

After fifty-six years as a performer, Miss Gish ponders future acting assignments with eagerness. “I’m always interested in new things,” she said … If it’s new and different, I want to know about it. I was born with a terrific curiosity.’

Published: April 17, 1960

Then and Now - Lillian Gish Sun Apr 17 1960-1

Then and Now - Lillian Gish Sun Apr 17 1960-2

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Dorothy Gish – By ANTHONY SLIDE – 1973

The Griffith Actresses

By ANTHONY SLIDE – 1973

About the Author

Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Slide was born and educated in Birmingham, England. In 1968, he co-founded The Silent Picture, the only serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film. In 1970 he organized Britain’s first silent film festival, an eighteen-day event at London’s National Film Theatre, and he has also arranged seasons there on British Cinema in the Twenties and British Music Hall Comedians on Film. From 1971 to 1972, he was a Louis B. Mayer Research Associate at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies in Beverly Hills, and he now works for the A.F.I. on the American Film Institute Catalog. Slide’s previous book, Early American Cinema, was also published by A. S. Barnes. He is currently at work on a history of the Vitagraph Company of America and a study of the silent cinema in Ireland.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 16
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Dorothy Gish view 8]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3555

Dorothy Gish

Oh, she was such fun. — Bessie Love

“She gives people the impression that she’s an awful tomboy,” her sister says with a sigh. “I can’t help it if I do,” the accused replies, “because I do like to climb trees, and I do like to take off my shoes and stockings and go wading, and I do like to swim, and go fishing, and bait my own hooks, and . . .

“Hush, dear, people will think you’re simply terrible and it won’t do any good for me to tell them what a perfect darling you are.” The last from Miss Lillian Gish to her sister Dorothy. “Mr. Griffith,” she remarked, “I’ve often wondered how the divine Sarah would have played this part.” Before Mr. Griffith could answer, Dorothy Gish spoke up: “You mean the great French actress?” she inquired ironically. “Ah yes! She’d do it this way.”

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); Dorothy Gish; ca. 1930’s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.239

The foregoing apocryphal conversation, which appeared in a 1914 issue of Reel Life, suggests the essence of Dorothy Gish’s personality. Her sense of fun and wit was well-known and appreciated by her many friends. Herbert Wilcox recalls in his autobiography: “The wittiest woman I have met is undoubtedly Dorothy Gish. Whilst in New York I took her to the Pavilion, the smartest and darkest restaurant in the city. About that time a columnist who called herself Hortense was dishing out her daily column of poison. ‘Hortense’ was universally loathed, particularly by her pet target—film stars. Whilst eating, I thought I saw her at a far table, but in the low-key lighting was not certain. ‘Isn’t that Hortense over there?’ I asked. Dorothy looked and without a flicker of a smile answered: ‘She looks perfectly relaxed to me.’”

From the day she was born, on March 11, 1898, in Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy’s private life was always to be linked with that of her sister. In company with their mother, the two girls spent their early years touring in melodrama, Dorothy having made her stage debut at the age of four. Of her childhood she was to write: “People used to say Lillian would never live to get into her ’teens. She was so quiet and good. I wasn’t. I used to get into mischief, and get spanked, and then Lillian cried—so much and so pitifully that she used to make everyone round her do the same.” However, there was another side to Dorothy’s character, and Lillian recalled that she could be a very serious child, and at times became so serious that she was nicknamed “Grannie Gish.”

DOROTHY GISH 1916 - LITTLE MEENA'S ROMANCE
DOROTHY GISH 1916 – LITTLE MEENA’S ROMANCE

In 1929, Dorothy reminisced about the plays Lillian and she had worked in as children. “Remember, Lillian, the old Blaney melodrama we used to play in? Remember Her First False Step? That was the name of our first melodrama. I always thought it was misnamed. There were two of us; Lillian and I were the false steps. Lillian would run out dressed as a newsboy, and give me a lollypop and I would clap my hands and cry ‘Oh Goodie! Goodie!’ And Lillian would kneel beside her mother and say, ‘Oh mother, what are you doing out here in the cold and snow?’ And remember the snow, Lillian? How they used to sweep it up every night and use it again the next day, and we’d have nails and pieces of wood and sometimes dead mice hit us on the head when they threw it down?”

Dorothy Gish early role on stage
Dorothy Gish early role on stage

Then, one fateful day in Baltimore, Mrs. Gish took her two young daughters to see a moving picture; it was Lena and the Geese, featuring Gladys Smith, whose family was intimate friends of the Gishes. Thus it was that when the Gish family arrived in New York, they went along to the Biograph studios to renew acquaintances with the Smiths, and Gladys, now Mary Pickford, introduced them to D. W. Griffith.

Griffith gave the two girls work as extras at $5 a day, and shortly after the first meeting featured both of them in An Unseen Enemy, released September 9, 1912. However, before very long, it became apparent that it was Lillian in whom Griffith was most interested. Linda Arvidson described Dorothy as “a bit too perky to interest the big director.” And Griffith told Albert Bigelow Paine, “Dorothy was more apt at getting the director’s idea than Lillian, quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result. Lillian conceived an ideal, and patiently sought to realise it.”

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

But it was Dorothy who was the more popular at the studio with the other players. Blanche Sweet recalled: “Dorothy was very close and very dear. We got to be excellent friends, and remained so until she died. Griffith asked me, ‘Which one do you like?’ And I said, ‘They’re both lovely, they’re both beautiful, but I like the younger one. There’s something, the expression of her face, it’s vivacious.’ Lillian was calmer and more placid. Dorothy had humor, of course, for which I have high regard.”

Griffith did, however, take Dorothy with him to Reliance-Majestic, perhaps only because Lillian would not have come without her. The director did not use her in either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, but Dorothy was featured in a vast number of Mutual releases directed by, among others, James Kirkwood, Christy Cabanne, and Donald Crisp* all under the nominal supervision of Griffith. Typical of such releases was the 1914 The Warning, directed by Donald Crisp.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 17
Donald Crisp and Dorothy Gish in The Mountain Rat (1914)

Dorothy plays Betty, “the wilful, indolent country girl,” who likes nothing better than sitting in a hammock, reading popular fiction with doubtful titles such as The Marriage of Marie. She is attracted to a drummer from the city, whom she meets outside the local post office, and with whom she elopes. After a fake marriage, the girl rents a dingy tenement room, in which she tries to gas herself. However, the landlady arrives on the scene in time, and sends her home to her mother. But because of her behaviour, her mother tells her to leave. The girl, in abject misery, wanders to a bridge and throws herself into the river. The scene fades, and we see that Dorothy has in fact fallen out of her hammock—it was all a dream. She meets the drummer who had beguiled her with his city manners, tells him she never wants to see him again, and promises her mother that in the future she will be good.

This one-reeler is a delight to watch, and makes one wish that more of Dorothy’s pictures from this early period were available for viewing. The range of her acting at such an early date in her career is quite remarkable. It hardly seems believable that comic little Dorothy could play tragedy as finely as she does in the scene of attempted suicide. She stands looking at the gas mantle, turns the gas on, and moves out of frame. All we glimpse is a harrowed, pitiful face, reflected in a mirror by the side of the mantle.

Linda Arvidson at least was aware of her abilities. For she wrote that, while Lillian was watching Dorothy on the set of The Wife, released in 1914, the elder sister commented, “Why, Dorothy is good; she’s almost as good as I am.”* Linda Arvidson continued, “Many more than myself thought Dorothy was better.”

It was Griffith, however, who gave Dorothy her really big chance, when he decided to film Hearts of the World. Lillian had already been cast as the heroine, and the role of “The Little Disturber” it was thought would go to Constance Talmadge. However, Lillian

realised that her sister would be ideal for the role, and eventually Griffith was brought around to her way of thinking. Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England in April, 1917, and Dorothy followed two weeks later. Only on her arrival in England—many scenes were shot on location in war-torn France—did Dorothy discover that the role was hers.

Anyone who has seen Hearts of the World will remember Dorothy’s walk in the picture, and Lillian recalled for me how that walk was discovered. “I was walking with Mr. Griffith in Whitechapel, and we found this girl walking like this, and he said, ‘Look at that walk!’ And we followed her until she went into a building, and we couldn’t any more. And we rushed back. He said, ‘Where’s your sister? This is a perfect walk for her in this part.’ And then we rushed back to the Savoy, and got her, and both of us showed her this walk. And out of that came ‘The Little Disturber.’ Those little things that you or he or somebody found that would give the key to the character. They have the idea that he sat and told you everything to do. Well,  he didn’t. He gave you the basis of the idea, and if you were overdoing it, he’d say, ‘Too much—don’t do so much. Be, don’t act. Be it.’ You didn’t want to get caught acting. You wanted to persuade people, whatever it was, that this was happening and this was real.”

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

One can’t help wondering if Lillian didn’t regret that she had pushed so much to have Dorothy in the film. For Hearts of the World is entirely Dorothy’s picture. She is utterly delightful as the street singer trying to make herself as attractive as possible to Robert Harron with “perseverance and perfume,” and shrugging her shoulders when she realises Harron’s love belongs elsewhere, secure in her philosophy, “If you can’t get what you want, want what you can get.”

For the film, Dorothy wore a black wig, which led to some amusing incidents later, as people failed to recognize her as the girl in the film. Dorothy told Adela Rogers St. Johns, “There was a woman sat next to mother and me one day at a matinee of Hearts of the World. The woman watched me on the screen for a few minutes and then she turned around to me and said, ‘I’ll bet that girl is a tough one. She couldn’t pull that stuff so well if she wasn’t.’ ”

As a result of her performance in Hearts of the World, Dorothy was offered a million-dollar contract by Paramount-Artcraft. She turned it down, preferring to remain with Griffith, an instance of the loyalty which crops up time and time again in recounting the careers of the Griffith actresses. After her decision to stay, Griffith supervised a series of seven Paramount-Artcraft comedies, directed by Elmer Clifton and starring Dorothy. These comedies, in fact, were so successful and popular that they helped to pay the cost of the building of Griffith’s new studios at Mamaroneck.

They were equally popular with the critics, as the following reviews from Wid’s Film Daily testify. I’ll Get Him Yet (reviewed May 25, 1919) : “Dorothy Gish has scored again. Individuality is marked in almost everything she does and the merest suggestion of a comic incident is frequently turned into a full-fledged laugh owing to her skill.” Nugget Nell (reviewed August 3, 1919) : “She knew just where to draw the line between seriousness and burlesque, with the result that time and time again she put a situation over with a bang. She was particularly bright in scoring in little things—the sort of things that made her efforts in the comedy line bring laughs merely because of her manner of doing them, and not always because of any inherent humor in the things themselves.”

Late in 1919, Lillian began work on her first and only film as a director, Remodelling Her Husband. As her stars she had Dorothy and James Rennie, whom Dorothy was to marry on December 20, 1920. “Griffith needed money as usual,” recalled Lillian, “and he wanted to go to Florida with his company and make the exteriors down there for two pictures quickly. And he said, ‘How would you like to direct a picture with your sister? I don’t want to break up a happy family, but I think you could do it. I think you know as much about movies as I do.’ Well, I went home, and talked it over with mother and Dorothy to see if they thought it was a good idea. Of course, there was no story. Dorothy thought it was all right, and we got a little piece of business Dorothy found out of a funny magazine, and wrote a whole story around that. I asked if I could have Dorothy Parker come and help me with the subtitles, because she’d never written for films, but I thought she was so witty and so bright— and I wanted it to be an all-woman picture too! Then Griffith left with everybody. He left Harry Carr—he was a brilliant man, the Los Angeles Times editorial writer—and me to do this film. I was taking scenes—it was December—and I’d have Dorothy and James Rennie playing the love scene, and it looked as if they were blowing smoke in one another’s faces, it was so cold. I had to go down to New Rochelle quickly and get all my scenery; I had to design all the scenery, there were no set designers. Dorothy helped with her costumes, but I had to see to all the furniture, everything. George Hill was the cameraman, and he had had shell shock and was hysterical. And I know I got my main set, the living room, so big and not high enough at the back, so that if he took the whole room in, he shot over the top. And he threw his hat in the air, stamped on it, and had hysterics about that. I had to keep him calm. And then I had to build the studio!

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

“When I moved down there, I had to see the furnace was put in, and that the heat was sufficient. I had only fifty thousand dollars to make this picture with. We had a scene of Fifth Avenue, and the day before we took it, I found you had to have a police permit, and if that happened, I had all my crew on salary over the Christmas holidays. I said, ‘I just can’t. It’s too far over the budget.’ And I asked the crew and company if they would take a chance of going to jail with me, because we were doing something illegal.

“Well, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue is the busiest section in New York, and I had to have a bus go by a taxi cab, the wife sitting on top of the bus seeing her husband with a woman in the taxi cab. And we had no permit! We had the cameras in the car ahead, and as we turned a policeman saw what was happening, and held up his hand. Then he looked up at me, and he looked again, and then he put his fingers to his mouth and forced a smile. I said, ‘Yes.’ He waved us on, and we got by. We finished fifty-eight thousand dollars, and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many pictures do today.

“When Griffith came back, I asked him why he did that to me, had me get a studio ready and make a picture, when it was the first one and such an awful chore. He said, ‘Because I needed my studio built quickly, and I knew they’d work faster for a girl than they would for me. I’m no fool.’ And his studio was ready when he came back; he moved right in.”