Lillian Gish - Actors and Actresses

Nationality: American. Born: Lillian Diana Gish in Springfield, Ohio, 14 October 1896 (some sources say 1893). Education: Briefly attended Ursuline Academy, East St. Louis, Illinois. Career: About 1902—stage debut in Rising Sun, Ohio, in The Little Red Schoolhouse ; 1903–04—with mother and sister Dorothy, toured in Her First False Step ; 1905—danced with Sarah Bernhardt production in New York City; 1908–11—lived with aunt in Massillon, Ohio, and with mother in East St. Louis, and briefly with father in Oklahoma; 1912—film debut as featured player, with sister, in An Unseen Enemy for D. W. Griffith; 1913—in Belasco production of A Good Little Devil starring Mary Pickford; collapsed during run of play with pernicious anemia; 1920—directed Dorothy Gish in Remodeling Her Husband ; 1921—last film under Griffith's direction, Orphans of the Storm ; joined Inspiration Films; 1924—$800,000 contract with MGM; 1930—first talkie, One Romantic Night ; resumed stage career in Uncle Vanya ; 1930s—began working in radio; 1948—TV debut in Philco Playhouse production The Late Christopher Bean ; 1969—began giving film lecture "Lillian Gish and the Movies: The Art of Film, 1900–1928." Awards: Honorary Oscar, "for superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures," 1970; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1984; D. W. Griffith Award, for "an outstanding career in motion pictures," 1987. Died: In New York City, 27 February 1993.

Films as Actress:


An Unseen Enemy (Griffith); Two Daughters of Eve (Griffith); In the Aisles of the Wild (Griffith); The One She Loved (Griffith); The Musketeers of Pig Alley (Griffith); My Baby (Frank Powell); Gold and Glitter (Frank Powell); The New York Hat (Griffith); The Burglar's Dilemma (Griffith); A Cry for Help (Griffith)


Oil and Water (Griffith); The Unwelcome Guest (Griffith); The Stolen Bride (O'Sullivan); A Misunderstood Boy (Griffith); The Left-Handed Man (Griffith); The Lady and the Mouse (Griffith); The House of Darkness (Griffith); Just Gold (Griffith); A Timely Interception (Griffith); Just Kids (Henderson); The Mothering Heart (Griffith); During the Round Up (Griffith); An Indian's Loyalty (Frank Powell); A Woman in the Ultimate (Griffith); A Modest Hero (Griffith); So Runs the Way (Griffith); The Madonna of the Storm (Griffith); The Blue or the Gray (Cabanne); The Conscience of Hassan Bey (Cabanne); The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (Griffith)


The Green-Eyed Devil (Kirkwood); The Battle of the Sexes (Griffith); The Hunchback (Cabanne); The Quicksands (Cabanne); Home, Sweet Home (Griffith); Judith of Bethulia (Griffith) (as the young mother); Silent Sandy (Kirkwood); The Escape (Griffith); The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (Cabanne); Lord Chumley (Kirkwood); Man's Enemy (Frank Powell); The Angel of Contention (O'Brien); The Wife ; The Tear that Burned (O'Brien); The Folly of Anne (O'Brien); The Sisters (Cabanne); His Lesson (Crisp) (as extra)


The Birth of a Nation (Griffith) (as Elsie Stoneman); The Lost House (Cabanne); Enoch Arden ( As Fate Ordained ) (Cabanne); Captain Macklin (O'Brien); Souls Triumphant (O'Brien); The Lily and the Rose (Paul Powell)


Daphne and the Pirate (Cabanne) (as Daphne); Sold for Marriage (Cabanne); An Innocent Magdalene (Dwan); Intolerance (Griffith); Diane of the Follies (Cabanne) (title role); Pathways of Life ; Flirting with Fate (Cabanne); The Children Pay (Ingraham)


The House Built upon Sand (Morrissey)


Hearts of the World (Griffith) (as the Girl, Marie Stephenson); The Great Love (Griffith); Liberty Bond short (Griffith); The Greatest Thing in Life (Griffith); The Romance of Happy Valley (Griffith)


Broken Blossoms (Griffith) (as Lucy Burrows); True Heart Susie (Griffith) (title role); The Greatest Question (Griffith)


Way Down East (Griffith) (as Anna Moore)


Orphans of the Storm (Griffith) (as Henriette Girard)


The White Sister (Henry King) (as Angela Chiaromonte)


Romola (Henry King) (title role)


La Bohème (King Vidor) (as Mimi); The Scarlet Letter (Seastrom) (as Hester Prynne)


Annie Laurie (Robertson) (title role); The Enemy (Niblo)


The Wind (Seastrom) (as Letty Mason)


One Romantic Night (Stein) (as Alexandra)


His Double Life (Hopkins and William B. DeMille) (as Mrs. Alice Hunter)


The Commandos Strike at Dawn (Farrow) (as Mrs. Bergesen)


Top Man ( Man of the Family ) (Lamont) (as Beth Warren)


Miss Susie Slagle's (Berry) (title role); Duel in the Sun (King Vidor) (as Mrs. Laura Belle McCanles)


Portrait of Jennie ( Jennie ) (Dieterle) (as Mother Mary of Mercy)


The Cobweb (Minnelli) (as Victoria Inch); The Night of the Hunter (Laughton) (as Rachel); Salute to the Theatres (supervisor: Loud—short) (appearance)


Orders to Kill (Asquith) (as Mrs. Summers)


The Unforgiven (Huston) (as Mattilda Zachary)


The Great Chase (Killiam—doc)


Follow Me, Boys! (Tokar) (as Hetty Seiber)


Warning Shot (Kulik) (as Alice Willows); The Comedians (Glenville) (as Mrs. Smith); The Comedians in Africa (short) (appearance)


Henri Langlois (Hershon and Guerra) (as guest)


Twin Detectives (Day—for TV)


A Wedding (Altman) (as Nettie Sloan)


Thin Ice (Aaron—for TV)


Hobson's Choice (Cates—for TV)


Hambone and Hillie (Watts) (as Hillie)


Sweet Liberty (Alda) (as Cecelia Burgess); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Hunt)


The Whales of August (Lindsay Anderson) (as Sarah Webber)

Film as Director:


Remodeling Her Husband (+ co-sc with Dorothy Gish as "Dorothy Elizabeth Carter")

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter


By GISH: books—

Life and Lillian Gish , with Albert Bigelow, New York, 1932.

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me , with Ann Pinchot, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1969.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish , New York, 1973.

An Actor's Life for Me , as told to Selma Lane, New York, 1987.

By GISH: articles—

"The Gish Girls Talk about Each Other," by Ada Patterson in Photoplay (New York), June 1921.

"Dorothy Gish, the Frankest Girl I Know," in Filmplay Journal , April 1922.

"We Interview the Two Orphans," by Gladys Hall and Adele Whitely Fletcher, in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), May 1922.

"My Sister and I," in Theatre Magazine (New York), November 1927.

"Birth of an Era," in Stage , January 1937.

"D. W. Griffith: A Great American," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), October 1940.

"Silence Was Our Virtue," in Films and Filming (London), December 1957.

"Conversation with Lillian Gish," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1957–58.

"Life and Living," interview in Films and Filming (London), January 1970.

"Lillian Gish . . . Director," in Silent Picture (London), Spring 1970.

Interview with Y. Lardeau and V. Ostria, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1983.

Interview with Allan Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), August 1987.

On GISH: books—

Wagenknecht, Edward, Lillian Gish: An Interpretation , Seattle, 1927.

Lillian Gish: Actress , compiled by Anthony Slide, London, 1969.

Pratt, George C., Spellbound in Darkness , Connecticut, 1973.

Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus , New York, 1973.

Slide, Anthony, The Griffith Actresses , New York, 1973.

Affron, Charles, Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis , New York, 1977.

Lillian Gish , edited by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1980.

Wagenknecht, Edward, Stars of the Silents , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1987.

On GISH: articles—

Hall, Gladys, "Lights! Say Lillian!," in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), April/May 1920.

Brooks, Louise, "Women in Films," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1957–58.

Brooks, Louise, "Gish and Garbo: The Executive War on Stars," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1958–59.

Tozzi, Romano, "Lillian Gish," in Films in Review (New York), December 1962, see also issue for April 1964.

Bodeen, DeWitt, "Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me," in Silent Picture (London), Autumn 1969.

Morley, Sheridan, "Lillian Gish: Life and Living," in Films and Filming (London), January 1970.

Current Biography 1978 , New York, 1978.

Curran, T., "Lillian Gish: Tribute to a Great Lady," in Films in Review (New York), October 1980.

Kael, Pauline, "Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.

Naremore, J., "True Heart Susie and the Art of Lillian Gish," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Winter 1981.

"Dossier: Lillian Gish," in Cinématographe (Paris), October 1983.

Brownlow, Kevin, "Glimpses of a Legend," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1984.

Brownlow, Kevin, "Lillian Gish," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1984.

Slide, Anthony, "Filming Lillian Gish," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), June 1984.

Obituary in New York Times , 1 March 1993.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 8 March 1993.

DeCroix, Rick & Limbacher, James L., "In Memory of Lillian Gish (1893–1993)," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1994.

Oderman, Stuart, "Lillian Gish: A Friend Remembered," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1994.

Wolfe, R., "The Gish Film Theater and Gallery: the Ohio Roots of Dorothy and Lillian Gish," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1994.

Sweeney, Kevin W., "Redirecting Melodrama: Gish, Henry King, and Romola," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1995.

Oderman, Stuart, "The Sound of Silents," in Films in Review (New York), March-April 1996.

* * *

"I was always having bright ideas and suffering for them," Lillian Gish wrote in her memoirs, describing her incredible performance on the ice floes in Way Down East (1920). Perhaps the actress who logged more hours of suffering on-screen than any other, Gish brought both dignity and complexity to the genre of silent melodrama. From the very beginning of her 85-year career, Gish dedicated her all to the art of acting, and, as is little-known about her, to writing, editing, and even directing. (Her one directing effort, Remodeling Her Husband [1920] is, unfortunately, lost.) The great director, D. W. Griffith, treated Gish as something close to a collaborator in many of their works together; she responded with a loyalty that bordered on devotion. Who else but Gish would write memoirs that are primarily about Griffith rather than herself?

Early in her career Gish demonstrated the restraint and subtlety that adds such depth to her performances. Even before her famous role in Birth of a Nation (1915), Gish had developed many of her characteristic poses: in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) she cradles her cheek with her hand, a gesture that she later adapts by moving her pinky finger over to her mouth and chewing on her fingernail. Other early poses include the indignant thrust of an elbow as her fist goes to her hip, a head thrown down onto her arms in despair, and the prim pressing of her hands and pursing of her lips as she rebuffs an overzealous lover. Gish, under Griffith's encouragement, often improvised these "details" that came to define her ingenuous style. In Broken Blossoms (1919) she created the famous gesture of lifting the corners of her mouth with two fingers when her abusive father berates her for not smiling enough. She also suggested trailing her hair and her hand in the freezing water as she lay collapsed on the ice in Way Down East .

Gish studied literature and philosophy, fencing and dancing to prepare her mind and her body for acting. She practiced with the Denishawn Company of Los Angeles, which produced Martha Graham among other famous modern dancers. Similar to Bogart's expressive face, however, Gish's eyes and mouth were her primary instruments of communication. Upon hearing that her lover has been killed, in The White Sister (1923), she delivers the gaze that is found in so many of her films: wide-eyed, vulnerable, distant, and tragic. (The intertitle describes her as being in "a trance-like state of dry-eyed despair.") Some of Gish's most powerful moments on film occur when her stoic suffering gives way to an expressive panic. In the climatic scene of Broken Blossoms , she flings her body around a tiny room and expresses on her face all of the fear and terror of someone who is about to be beaten brutally. In a similar scene from The Wind (1928), Gish is shown clawing at a window pane, eyes wide in horror as she watches the wind uncover the dead body of her rapist.

Too often Gish's acting abilities have been undervalued because they are associated with the stereotype of the "simplistic" moral universe of melodramas. Rarely does Gish express any singular emotion; happiness is tinged with wistfulness, envy with irony, grief with hope. If there is any continuity in her roles it would have to be that her characters are always thoughtful. Gish allows the viewer to watch as her characters progress from one emotion to another, so one can follow as her True Heart Susie first feels disbelief, then horror, then irony touched by hysterical laughter and, finally, a weary acceptance when she discovers her lover plans to wed another; or, again, in Way Down East , when Anna baptizes her dying child, the grief, desperation, and loneliness of her character are all discreetly visible in her facial expression and bodily action. Gish's characters are never entirely predictable. Unlike the tableau poses of earlier melodramatic acting, Gish's emotional moments flow together realistically and logically while still retaining an element of surprise.

While Gish's reputation has been established primarily on the basis of her extensive silent film career, she found equal fame on the stage and in sound film and television. After studying voice lessons, her speaking characters appear as natural and as unpretentious as her silent performances. She eased quite gracefully into "older" roles, such as the tough-as-nails, shotgun-toting mother of orphans in The Night of the Hunter (1955), or the self-sacrificing sister to a bitter Bette Davis in The Whales of August (1987). These final film performances demonstrate Gish's talent for refining and adapting her craft, even as film technology and trends in film acting styles changed radically during her prodigious career.

—Elizabeth Coffman

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