LEST WE FORGET LILLIAN GISH
(October 14, 1893 - February 27, 1993)
The First Lady of American Cinema who pioneered fundamental film
Descended from the early settlers in the American colonies, her mother's ancestors included President Zachary Taylor. At the age of one, her family moved to Dayton, Ohio where her beloved sister Dorothy was born. Although her father allegedly moved to New York hoping to find a better job, he deserted the family leaving them to fend for themselves. She had little formal education but was tutored by her mother and by the illustrious actors she worked with as a child. Billed as "Baby Lillian," she made her professional debut in the melodrama In Convict's Stripes in 1902. For seven years she toured in plays with limited literary merit like The Child Wife and Little Red School House. She often traveled alone with a Masonic emblem pinned to her lapel by her mother so that fellow Masons would take care of her.
An early friendship with the Smith family in Nw York yielded unexpected benefits when their eldest child Gladys (who had changed her name to Mary Pickford and become a star of silent cinema) introduced Lillian and Dorothy to the director D. W. Griffith. Her screen debut was in
An Unseen Enemy (1912).
Denishawn School of Dancing so that, as she claims in her autobiography, Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (1969) "within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or athlete."
The first role that established her as a screen actress was Elsie Stoneman in
The Birth of a Nation (1915), the Civil War epic that became a landmark in the history of the art of the film. She was well known for playing pure, self-sacrificing heroines pitted against enormous odds of brutality and hardship.
Of her acting in Way Down East, John Barrymore wrote to Griffith, "I merely wish to tell you that her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life...It is great fun and a great stimulant to see an American artist equal, if not surpass, the finest traditions of the theatre."
|Broken Blossoms 1921|
Her willingness to work long hours under atrocious conditions and her refusal to compromise any detail for the quality of the work testify to her enormous courage. After watching her film in a snowstorm with 90 mile-an-hour gale winds for a whole day, Henry Carr wrote: "That blizzard scene was real. It was taken in the most God-awful blizzard I ever saw. Lillian stuck out there in front of the cameras. D.W. would ask her if she could stand it, and she would nod. The icicles hung from her eyelashes and her face was blue. When the last shot was made they had to carry her to the studio."
|Way Down East|
In 1924 she joined MGM where she made five films in two years for a salary of $800,000. La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926),
Annie Laurie (1927), The Enemy (1928) and The Wind (1928). Her work in these films attracted the attention of theatre directors worldwide.
Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko of the Moscow Art Theatre wrote to her: "I want once more to tell you of my admiration for your genius....a combination of the greatest sincerity, brilliance and unvarying charm, places you in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world."
|Lillian and Dorothy 1921|
One Romantic Night in 1930 and then returned to New York to her first love, the legitimate stage. When she performed as Helena in
Jed Harris's production of Uncle Vanya (Cort Theatre, New York, 1930), she was universally applauded, drawing from critics the same enthusiasm which had greeted her finest film roles. Charles Darnton, The New York Times: "When the presence of her filled the stage like light flooding through a window into a room, she was so luminous that the others faded into the background."
She was cast as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic's landmark 1936 production of Hamlet starring John Gielgud and Judith Anderson.
In the 1940s and 1950s she returned to films including Duel in the Sun, (which earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress) Portrait of Jennie, The Night of the Hunter, and The Cobweb. In 1978 she appeared in A Wedding directed by Robert Altman which was her hundredth motion picture. She found that "acting in films was largely a matter of doing what you were told and collecting your salary." So she continued to act on stage when not in a film and portrayed Katerina Ivanova in Crime and Punishment with John Gielgud, the half-crazy Ethel in John Patrick's The Curious Savage (1950) and the world-weary Carrie Watts longing for home in Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful (1953. Harold Clurman wrote: "Lillian Gish seems to me to be better in The Trip to Bountiful than in any other play in which I have seen her."
She played a summer season with her sister Dorothy in The Chalk Garden (1956) and in 1958 created the role of Agatha in the American premiere of T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion. Other significant roles were Catherine in Tad Mosel's All the Way Home, Mrs. Mopply in Shaw's
Too True To Be Good, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Festival
and Margaret Garrison in I Never Sang For My Father.
Arsenic and Old Lace which co-starred her dear friend
Helen Hayes and hosted a collection of early movies entitled
The Silent Years for PBS in 1975 (Note: It is on Youtube). Her last film appearance at age 93 was in The Whales of August which co-starred Bette Davis, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price. (1987). She won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress.
Despite many offers she never married. "A good wife has a 24 hours a day job, while acting has required me to work up to twelve or fourteen hours a day. I didn't ruin any dear man's life, and I'm grateful for that."
All who met her were impressed with her modesty, her graciousness, her unflagging enthusiasm and her radiant beauty.
"Lillian Gish is considered the movie industry's first true actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact. While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waif like frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength.
More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remain the standard against which those of all other actors are measured."
The All Movie Guide, Wikipedia
RESOURCES: Notable Women in the American Theatre. 1989. Sam McCready
The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (with Ann Pinchot) Prentice-Hall 1969
Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Charles Scribner's Sons 1973
An Actor's Life For Me (With Selma G. Lanes) Viking Penguin 1987
Lillian Gish A Life on Stage and Screen. Stuart Oderman McFarland & Co. 2000
Lillian Gish Her Legend, Her Life. Charles Affron . Scribner 2001