The Lily Maid From Ohio – F. J. Smith – Motion Picture (1921)

The Lily Maid From Ohio by Frederick James Smith – Motion Picture Classic Magazine (Brewster, 1921)

Only the other day we were talking to three very varied observers of the screen – Theda Bara, Olga Petrova and an exceedingly cynical student of things cinematic – and with one voice they all agreed upon the foremost player of the films. And we were surprised to note that their choice accorded with our own. For the unanimous vote went to Lillian Gish.

We hope that our more or less gentle readers will appreciate our honesty in making this confession. We have much more to lose by making it than Miss Bara, Madame Petrova or the aforementioned student. At least six stars will drop us from their luncheon lists. Still, we must be truthful.

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

You will be interested in the points given Miss Gish. ”She is tremendously varied,” they said in substance. “Unlike the most of our screen players, she is never Lillian Gish. Her frail pathetic waif of Limehouse in ‘Broken Blossoms’ was a marvelous piece of emotionalism. Her struggling Annie Moore of ‘Way Down East’ was equally fine, yet it sounded a distinctly different emphatic note. Both were as differentiated, as clear cut, as only superb playing could make them.” These particular comments, we add, are those of the critical trivia, not our own. With menu-less days staring us in the eyes, we cannot commit ourselves further.

Henrietta (Lillian Gish as Henriette Girard in Orphans of The Storm)
Henrietta (Lillian Gish as Henriette Girard in Orphans of The Storm)

Lillian Gish is our foremost player of the films, at least in the opinion of many screen authorities. Her Limehouse waif in “Broken Blossoms” and her heroine of “Way Down East” stand as dramatic milestones. Above, Miss Gish appears as Henriette in “The Two Orphans”

Orphans of The Storm Lillian Gish Mamaroneck X2

Seriously however, we have talked to Miss Gish under many conditions. We remember our first meeting in a Manhattan hotel, when the almost medieval spirituelle so clearly caught by the motion picture camera left us nearly breathless. It was like colliding with the Lily Maid of Astolat at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway.

Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat ... Lillian Gish - Way Down East
Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat … Lillian Gish – Way Down East

Later we watched Miss Gish at the time she directed her sister, Dorothy, for a single comedy. Here, her direct business-like methods, her uncanny poise and placidity, impressed us despite the fact that the studio at the moment was several degrees below zero. Miss Gish was spirituelle but she was also very sane. We readjusted our view-point as well as our overcoat. Here was Elaine modernized, gone to business school and highly efficient.

Way Down East - Anna Moore Detail
Way Down East – Anna Moore Detail

Later we observed her during the making of “Way Down East”. Her amazing vitality left us aghast, for Miss Gish is seemingly of brittle fragility. Yet she could spend hours before the camera with no seeming effects of tiredness or boredom. Elaine again, but this time with the endurance of Jack Dempsey and the poise of the first reader of a Christian Science Church.

Motion Picture Classic Lot (Brewster Publications, 1922) Lillian Gish is Henriette Girard

And, only recently we have been noting her Henrietta in “The Two Orphans,” now being made under the Griffith hand. Henrietta is a girl of those ornate valentine days of fur-belows and gold lace, immediately preceding the French Revolution. Miss Gish’s Henrietta might have stepped from a Watteau canvas.

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

It was while watching Miss Gish in the rainbow scenes of a garden fete of the roistering Eighteenth Century that we took stock of our observations. She reclined in a small sedan chair while Mr. Griffith developed the exact action of the huge scene-apparently half dozing in relaxation.

“What are you going to say of me this time?” she half smiled.

“That you have no temperament, as temperaments go.”

“Ah, ” sighed Miss Gish. “This is work, just like anything else.”

“Where do you get your poise?”

“Poise?” she laughed. “I haven’t any. Really. I just try to use common sense and take things as easily as I can.”

Lillian Gish - wearing "extras" costume 1921
Lillian Gish – wearing “extras” outfit (1921)

Yet there is a deeper basis in the success of this actress who drifted away from a tiny Ohio town to risk everything behind the stage footlights, with her mother and sister. Oddly, there is something of the sturdy pioneer hidden beneath this seeming frail physique. The spirituelle note? That is a rare quality. Miss Gish has somehow managed to keep her dreams almost intact and aloof from the hurrying world.

Lilly From Ohio (1921) - Kenneth Alexander - Detail

This picture may seem a pale and cloying lavender but there are other qualities, very human ones indeed. There is just a slender tinge of disillusionment. How could it be otherwise in rushing 1921? And a sense of humor, for instance. Also a keen, quick thinking brain. Likewise, a ready sympathy. Somehow, we rather think that Miss Gish can best be described as the girl back home – the one you enmeshed in a golden haze of illusions – come true.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)

All this may sound unduly sentimental. But we defy anyone to meet and write of Miss Gish otherwise. Altho we steeled ourselves at the outset, we find ourselves throwing menus and discretion to the winds as we progress. But we couldn’t sacrifice ourselves in a better literary cause!

Lillian Gish 1921 - The Girl Back Home

Lillian Gish spirituelle note is a rare quality.

She has somehow managed to keep her dreams almost intact and aloof from the hurrying world. Miss Gish can best be described as the girl back home – the one you enmeshed in a golden haze of illusions – come true.  

Motion Picture Classic Magazine (Brewster, 1921) The Lily Maid from Ohio

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