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.