The Clamorous Era, 1910-1920 – The Movie Queens

  • The Clamorous Era
  • 1910 – 1920
  • By the Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS Alexandria, Virginia

America is in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest. We are hastily reviewing all our social conceptions. We are profoundly disenchanted. – The New Democracy by Walter Weyl, 1912

The Movie Queens

LILLIAN AND DOROTHY GISH, two sisters who exuded a rarefied aura of crushed lavender and moonbeams (opposite), were among the first representatives of a new phenomenon in America—the movie queen. They belonged to a celebrated handful of film actresses, some demure ingenues, some femmes fatales, who had come to symbolize through their movie roles the romantic ideals of the nation. An adoring public showered them with fan letters, and girls all over America tried to emulate their clothes, their hair styles and their ways with men.

But like many silent film queens, the Gish sisters in real life were not quite what they seemed on the screen. Neither innocent nor fragile, they had already knocked about the theatrical world for almost a decade, playing children’s parts in road companies. They joined the movies in 1912, when Lillian (at left in the photograph) was 16 and Dorothy 14, after discovering that a friend, another child actress named Gladys Smith (below), was earning $175 a week at Biograph and riding around in a limousine.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

The Gishes were unruffled by Biograph’s unorthodox screen test, an unnerving 10 minutes during which the director, D. W. Griffith, chased them around the studio with a revolver, shooting off blanks. They signed up at five dollars a day and plunged into an arduous dawn-to-dusk work schedule that included frequent hardship and even danger. In one movie, Way Down East, Lillian was sent floating down Connecticut’s Farmington River on an ice pack, clad in a thin dress, her arm trailing in the frigid water, for more than 100 takes. Her prescription for surviving such ordeals was a regimen of spartan self-discipline: “Don’t eat much, take calisthenics every morning, sleep out of doors, take plenty of cold baths.”

Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East

Both sisters won kudos for acting; but Lillian achieved the greater acclaim for her outstanding work in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Hearts of the World. After her performance as a slum waif in Broken Blossoms, the theater critic George Jean Nathan rhapsodized, “The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on the bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes.”

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page