Miss Gish made her stage debut in a melodrama called ”In Convict’s Stripes” in Rising Sun, Ohio. ”I was 5,” Lillian Gish said, ”and the only acting lesson I ever had was, ‘Speak loud and clear or else they’ll get another little girl!’ ” ”We had to do something to live in the summertime,” she recalled yesterday, ”because theaters closed down. No air conditioning.” Her mother and her younger sister, Dorothy, also turned to acting with various touring companies, and thus the family supported itself.
Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress. You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.
“You had lectures, you had performances, you had basketball games held in the opera houses, commencement ceremonies, that sort of thing,” said Michael R. Hurwitz, of Historic Opera Houses. “These opera houses at the turn of the last century were built in small communities to be a community center, to provide entertainment and were the heartbeat of the community. (An opera house) truly was the community rallying point and the community center for all of these small towns throughout America.” All historic opera houses have a connection to the rich history of their communities, but some boast especially significant ties to national history. An example of this is the Risingsun Opera House with its connection to actress Lillian Gish.
“Risingsun is historic, it is well preserved, and it has the cache of having Lillian Gish, who in theatrical circles and motion picture circles is truly one of the great pioneers of American theater and American film who performed on that stage. It’s a very significant piece of our history — Ohio’s history — but also theatrical history,” Hurwitz said. Gish, nicknamed “The First Lady of American Cinema,” had her very first performance on the stage of the Risingsun Opera House when she was 5 years old. Along with this association to Gish, the Risingsun Opera House is notable because it is very well preserved. Hurwitz, a theater technician, describes it as still being in “remarkably good condition,” as it appears to still be structurally sound and still has the stage, seating and balcony intact.
I first met Lillian Gish at the Blackstone Hotel in December 1920, when she came to Chicago for the local opening of Way Down East at the Woods Theater. I did not meet Dorothy until January 1922, when both she and Lillian came for the opening of Orphans of the Storm and occupied the box just behind mine at the Great Northern Theater.
The meeting in Chicago referred to at the end of my discussion occurred, again at the Blackstone and later at the railroad station, when Lillian and her mother stopped off between trains when she was on her way to the Coast to take up her M-G-M contract. It is interesting to reflect that of the roles I mention in my penultimate paragraph as being naturals for her, Ophelia is the only one she ever had a chance to play. This was in the famous 1936 New York stage production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, in which John Gielgud was the Hamlet and Judith Anderson the Queen. As early as 1936 however, Edward Steichen had taken a marvelous portrait of her as Ophelia.
What one can see at the movies is astonishing. The earth splits, mountains fall, oceans rise up, entire cities disappear. But sometimes the most astonishing sight of all is an actor’s face. That was especially true when films were silent. Sure, there were subtitles but it was the face — the curve of a lip or the lift of an eyebrow or the suggestion of a frown — that really delivered the text.
If the face belonged to a Charlie Chaplin or a Lillian Gish, the audience would remember its message forever.
Lillian Gish was born in 1893, a few years after Thomas Alva Edison contrived “moving pictures.” Fifteen years later she was working in D. W. Griffith’s one-reelers: a young woman with thick, flyaway hair, big eyes and a small, pursed mouth. She was pretty and pleasant to look upon, but prettiness can’t hold the eye for very long. Rather, it was what was going on behind the facade that fascinated. Watching Lillian Gish was like reading a book.
It is born, it breathes, it eats, it communicates,
It grows old
And like all things in our universe,
It eventually dies.
Each theatre even has its own distinct personality—some are friendly, some brooding, some cozy, some expansive, some formal, some flamboyant. Its personality is initially defined by the entrepreneur who envisions it, the architect who designs it and the artisans who build it.
It is further shaped by the people and productions that take temporary residence in the theatres heart. Together, over time, this fusion of wood, metal, plaster, stone, sound, ideas, artists and audiences shape its spirit. One might even say spirits.
In November 1960 a beautiful play came to the Belasco. Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, adapted from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, starred Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Colleen Dewhurst, and Aline MacMahon. It etched with feeling the impact of a young fathers death on his family. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the season.
In April 1930 producer Jed Harris, known as the boy wonder, returned from London and produced and directed an acclaimed revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by Mrs. Ben Hecht (Rose Caylor). Harris’s direction and the acting of his sterling cast, Lillian Gish, Osgood Perkins, Walter Connolly, Eduardo Ciannelli Joanna Roos, and others, made the occasion a theatrical event. The end of 1930 brought a taut, cynical expose of scandal mongering newspapers called Five-Star Final. It starred Arthur Byron, Frances Fuller, and Berton Churchill, and featured Allen Jenkins. Theatre goers supported it for 176 showings.
After a series of unsuccessful plays in 1930 and 1931, the Longacre finally had a hit in Blessed Event (1932), starring Roger Pryor in a thinly disguised impersonation of the egotistical Broadway columnist Walter Winchell, with Isabel Jewell and Allen Jenkins in support. A dramatization of the infamous Lizzie Borden ax murders, Nine Pine Street, had a fine performance by Lillian Gish as the neurotic killer, but it only ran a few weeks in 1933.
Hal Holbrook starred in Robert Anderson’s somber autobiographical drama / Never Sang for My Father (1968), also starring Teresa Wright (then Mrs. Robert Anderson) and Lillian Gish.
The National had a series of failures and quick bookings during 1932 and 1933 and was dark for more than a year during those gray Depression days. But on October 22, 1934, a distinguished drama opened at this theatre. It was Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates, directed by Melvyn Douglas and starring Lillian Gish as a prostitute, Bramwell Fletcher as a poet, and Moffat Johnston as a bishop. The play took place in London’s Hyde Park, and the very large cast represented the great variety of humanity who spent their days in the park. There was music, dancing, and philosophizing, and Brooks Atkinson in The Times pronounced: “Nothing so grand has risen in our impoverished theatre since this reporter first began writing of plays.”
Mr. Gielgud was in the National’s next production as well, Crime and Punishment, costarring Lillian Gish, but the adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel was not a success.
Stuart Erwin and Lillian Gish in Mr. Sycamore.
St James Theatre
Lillian Gish and John Gielgud in Hamlet, which moved to the St. James in 1937.
Circle in the Square Theatre
Lillian Gish, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Barnard Hughes, and Julie Christie in Uncle Vanya.
The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J., & London 1980
THE PHILCO TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE (subsequently displaced by The Goodyear Theatre and The Alcoa Hour)
“The Late Christopher Bean” [adapted from the Sidney Howard play] (2-6-49) Bert Lytell, Lillian Gish (her video debut)
“The Birth of the Movies” (4-22-51) John Newland, Jean Pearson; narrated by Lillian Gish
The Philco Television Playhouse: “The Trip to Bountiful” [by Horton Foote; the basis for his 1953 Broadway play] (3-1-53) Lillian Gish, John Beal
The Alcoa Hour: “Morning’s at Seven” [adapted by Robert Wallstens from the Paul Osborn play] (11-4-56) Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, David Wayne, June Lockhart, Dorothy Stickney
THE FORD THEATRE HOUR Sponsored by The Ford Motor Company.
“Outward Bound” [adapted from the Sutton Vane play] (3-13-49) Lillian Gish, Freddie Bartholomew, Mary Boland, Richard Hart
“I, Mrs. Bibb” [by Paul Crabtree] (10-19-55) Lillian Gish, Richard Ney
“Ladies in Retirement” [adapted from the Edward Percy and Reginald Denham story] (5-7-51) Lillian Gish, Una O’Connor, Betty Sinclair, Michael McAloney
1949 – 50 season
“The Quality of Mercy” (3-15-54) Lillian Gish
“The Joyous Season”‘ [adapted from the Philip Barry play] (12-26-51) Lillian Gish, Wesley Addy
1951 – 52 season
THE SCHLITZ PLAYHOUSE OF THE STARS 1951 – 52
Segments were syndicated under a variety of titles HERALD PLAYHOUSE and THE PLAYHOUSE among them.
“The Autobiography of Grandma Moses” (3-28-52) Lillian Gish, Jonathan Marlowe
1952 – 53 season
THE CAMPBELL TELEVISION SOUNDSTAGE 1952 – 53 season
“The Corner Druggist” (5-28-54) Richard Kiley, Lillian Gish
1955 – 56 season
THE FORD STAR JUBILEE
“The Day Lincoln Was Shot” [adapted by R. Denis Sanders and Terry Sanders from the Jim Bishop book] (2-1-56 Saturday 9:30-11:00 CBS) Jack Lemmon, Raymond Massey, Lillian Gish; Charles Laughton narrated.
A blaze of glory for the medium, what with Playwrights ’56 a superb addition to the dramatic anthology. Playwrights ’56: “The Sound and the Fury” [adapted by William F. Durkee from the “Dilsey” section of the William Faulkner novel; directed by Vincent J. Donahue and produced by Fred Coe] (12-6-55) Franchot Tone, Lillian Gish, Ethel Waters, Janice Rule, Valerie Bettis, Steven Hill
PREVIOUSLY NOT CHRONICLED 1959-1978
THE PLAY OF THE WEEK
“The Grass Harp” [adapted from the 1952 play by Truman Capote and Virgil Thomson; produced for television by Jack Kuney and directed by Word Baker, with an intermission feature by The Saturday Review drama critic Henry Hewes] (3-28-60) Lillian Gish, Carmen Mathews, Nick Hyams, Russell Collins
Photo gallery – chronological order
Note: Illustrations from photo gallery are not part of Mr. Gianakos’ book.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, March 16, 1941 – Page 31
Young Red-Heads Are Models at Club Anniversary
The Chicago Woman’s club had a colorful 65th anniversary party recently when it introduced 11 south side red-heads to Miss Lillian Gish of the “Life With Father” company. The girls, who modeled in a fashion show which was the highlight of the program, were entertained afterward by Miss Gish at a matinee box party, as well as backstage. Sitting next to Miss Gish is Eileen Kilday, 1365 East 53d street. Standing (left to right) are Marylyn Schaefer, Josephine Cousgrove, Kay Brennen, Lucille Maloney, Elinor Eaton, Helen Geary, Marietta Fox, Alecia Byrne, Jeanne Marie Fox, and Jamie Fox.
Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.
“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”
Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”
“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”
I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?
“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”
It was time then for her to get ready for the picture taking and for her appearance onstage at the Opera House, an appearance that was to be greeted with a standing ovation.
First, however, she wanted to fuss with her makeup a bit. She stood at the mirror in the little dressing room and took out a few pins so that her hair fell down. She turned to ask a question, and in that moment, with her braids now flowing down to her waist, she looked exactly as if she was ready to go before the cameras again, the lovely heroine of the silent screen who had somehow defied the years and survived with all her innocence and strength intact. It was another moment that will not be forgotten.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.