- The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4
- Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish’s acting career has spanned more than seventy years and includes over ninety films, numerous stage plays, and radio and television appearances. Born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio, she began acting at the age of five years in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a traveling stage company melodrama. Her mother and her younger sister, Dorothy, also turned to acting with various touring companies, and thus the family supported itself. In 1912, through an introduction to D. W. Griffith by their friend Mary Pickford at the Biograph Company studios at 11 East Fourteenth Street in New York, Lillian and Dorothy were launched on film careers. They quickly became regular performers for the Biograph Company under D. W. Griffith’s direction.
Lillian Gish left Griffith briefly late that year to perform in David Belasco’s stage play A Good Little Devil but returned to Biograph in 1913 and appeared in numerous films, among them The Mothering Heart and Griffith’s western The Battle of Elderbush Gulch. When Griffith left Biograph to join the Mutual Film Corporation, Lillian and Dorothy moved with him. Established as a star in the part of Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Lillian Gish played a small but key role in Intolerance (1916) as the woman whose rocking of a cradle ties the four stories together. Thereafter, she appeared only in parts tailored to her talents. During World War I, she, her mother, and Dorothy traveled to England and France with D. W. Griffith to make a war film, Hearts of the World (1917). In 1918 she appeared in a Liberty Bond short and two more war pictures, The Great Love and The Greatest Question. Still under Griffith’s direction, she appeared in 1919 in two romantic dramas, A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie, before portraying Lucy in Broken Blossoms, in what has been considered her best performance.
After directing a movie on her own, Remodeling Her Husband (1919), and appearing in the celebrated Way Down East (1920), she left Griffith for a time. She returned in 1921 when they did their last film together, The Two Orphans. Under contract with Inspiration Pictures, she starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924). In 1925 she signed a contract with MGM to make six films in two years, of which five were completed. Notable were The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Seastrom. Her first talkie was One Romantic Night, released in 1930 as part of a contract with United Artists for three talking films to be chosen by her. Disappointed by the first film, she asked to be released from her contract and returned to the stage in Jed Harris’s revival of Uncle Vanya.
She never returned to full-time film acting but has devoted her talents primarily to the stage and some radio and television work. She has appeared in fewer than fifteen films since 1930, among them His Double Life (Paramount, 1933), Miss Susie Slagle’s (Paramount, 1946), Duel in the Sun (Selznick- United Artists, 1947), Night of the Hunter (United Artists, 1955), Orders to Kill (UMPO, 1958), and The Comedians (MGM, 1967).
Lillian Gish was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Duel in the Sun. His Double Life was selected by the New York Times as one of the Best Ten films of that year, and All the Way Home, a stage play in which she appeared in 1960, won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Award. She has been awarded honorary degrees from Rollins College and Mount Holyoke College. She collaborated with Albert Paine Bigelow on Life and Lillian Gish, a book published in 1932. In 1969, with Anne Pinchot, she wrote Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith & Me. This was followed in 1973 by Dorothy and Lillian Gish.