Gish, Lillian

views updated Jun 11 2018

GISH, Lillian

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")


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

Lillian Gish

views updated May 18 2018

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish (1893-1993) was responsible for turning film acting into an art form. She appeared in such monumental works as Birth of a Nation, directed by the man who launched her career, D.W. Griffith. Gish became known as the "First Lady of the Silent Screen."

Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1893 (some sources say 1896), in Springfield, Ohio. She was the eldest of two daughters born to James Lee Gish and his wife, Mary Robinson McConnell. Gish's father was a candy salesman, who had previously worked in the grocery business. When his daughters were toddlers, he moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland, then deserted them and moved to New York City. Gish's mother soon relocated there as well. To support her daughters, Mary Gish worked at a candy stand in a department store and as a boardinghouse manager. Continuing poverty drove her to appear on stage in the theater. She did so under the name Mae Bernard because she was ashamed of the acting profession. At the time, actors were regarded with disdain by society.

Made Stage Debut

The boardinghouse that Mary Gish managed was frequented by theater people. Mary Gish and her daughters shared a room with a young actress named Gladys Smith and her mother, with whom they became close friends. Through boardinghouse connections, Gish was put to work on stage as well in order to help support her family. She made her acting debut in a touring production of In Convict Stripes, in 1901 or 1902, when she was younger than ten years old. Gish, billed as "Baby Lillian," was put in the care of an actress-friend of her mother's who also appeared in the play. This role led to others. In 1902, she appeared in The Little Red Schoolhouse. Gish received no training as an actress. She told Enid Nemy of The New York Times, "The only acting lesson we ever had was to speak loud and clear. We were told that if we didn't, 'they'll get another little girl,' and they would have."

Gish's burgeoning acting career meant that she often was separated from her mother and sister, and in the care of others. Occasionally, the family could find work in the same production. In 1903-04, for example, she toured with her mother and younger sister Dorothy in Her First False Step. Sometimes, however, Gish was taken by Elbridge Gery's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, until she was retrieved by her mother. Gish's education suffered. By the time she was 11 years old, she had only attended school for five months. However, she did manage to teach herself to read, and Gish's love of books lasted a lifetime.

Cast for Film by Griffith

In 1912, Gish and her sister visited New York City's Biograph Studios to see their old friend, Gladys Smith. Smith had become something of a star under the name Mary Pickford. Smith introduced her friends to director D.W. Griffith, who immediately gave them an unusual screen test. Without warning, he shot at them with a prop gun and then chased them around the room. Their reaction to the situation impressed Griffith enough to hire them at a salary of $5 per week. Gish and her sister made their screen debut that same year in his An Unseen Enemy. For the next nine years and 40 films, Griffith and Gish worked to legitimize film as an art form.

Gish primarily appeared in melodramas, often playing characters with innocence at their core. Griffith liked working with Gish because, though she had the look of an angel, there were complex feelings below the surface as well. To gain a better understanding of people, Griffith directed Gish to attend prizefights and visit insane asylums. To encourage emotional and physical responses in her acting, Gish also took lessons in voice, dancing, and fencing. Thus, when she appeared before the camera, Gish became a master at improvising meaningful small gestures. For example, in 1912's Muskateers of Pig Alley, she cradled her cheek with her hand. Gish also handled many of her own stunts.

Many of Gish's early films with Griffith were two-reel shorts. She usually appeared as a victimized character. For example in 1913's The Mother Heart, Gish played a 30-year-old woman whose baby had died. As Griffith's narratives grew longer and more intricate, Gish's acting ability bloomed. Though some critics said that she had a narrow emotional range, Gish's style was completely different than most actresses of the time. On stage and in film, the popular acting style emphasized exaggeration. Gish balanced restraint and dignity with unbridled passion.

Appeared in The Birth of a Nation

Gish made her best known and most artistically relevant films with Griffith after 1915. The Birth of a Nation (1915) was considered the first film of modern cinema. In Intolerance (1916), Gish played a small but key role as Mother Ages, who rocked the cradle of humanity. Gish's definitive turn as an angel-like waif came in 1919 when she played Lucy in Broken Blossoms. In the movie, Lucy's affectionate relationship with an Asian shopkeeper infuriates her Cockney father so much that he beats her to death. One of Gish's most memorable scenes as an actress was the death scene, as she twisted fitfully to avoid her father's blows. Another unforgettable Gish scene was found in Way Down West (1920). Gish floated down an icy river as she collapsed, with her hand and hair trailing in the frigid water. To get this shot, Gish laid for hours over a three-week period in the cold water in Long Island Sound. The stunt left her with permanent nerve damage in two of her fingers.

In 1920, Gish took on a new challenge when she directed her first and only film, Remodeling Her Husband.The movie starred her sister Dorothy, who had become a successful comedic actress in her own right. The sisters had written the script together. Gish also edited the film, a skill that she learned from Griffith. She also learned how to set up lighting and choose costumes. Griffith and Gish had a collaborative working relationship. He allowed his star to direct screen tests for him. Gish even oversaw construction of his new studio. Her loyalty to Griffith was far-reaching: she followed him from Biograph to Mutual to what later became Paramount. However, Griffith and Gish made their final film together in 1921, Orphans of the Storm. Some speculated that the break was caused by Griffith's jealousy, because Gish was often given credit for the success of his films. Gish claimed that they had argued over money.

Gish had a bad experience with her next two movies, made for Inspiration Pictures. In her unusual contract, she received 15% of the profits, perhaps because she was one of the company's financial backers. After appearing in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), Gish had questions about the finances for the first film. Her inquires led Charles Duell, president of Inspiration Pictures, to claim that she had promised to be his bride. Gish sued and won, her reputation remaining intact. Free of Inspiration, Gish signed a six picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer worth about $800,000 to $1 million in 1925.

Asserted Creative Control

Gish's deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was unprecedented for a female star of the time. She had the power to choose projects, directors, and co-stars. Two of Gish's films were literary adaptations. She played Mimi in a 1926 version of La Boheme, with director King Vidor. Gish was so dedicated to the role that she fasted for three days in order to play Mimi's death scene. Also in 1926, Gish played Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. The film was not a financial success because its production costs were high. The only other film of significance that Gish made at MGM was The Wind (1928), her final silent film performance. The story focuses on a West Texas woman who goes insane after she is raped and kills her rapist. While the film was acclaimed in retrospect, studio executives found it too harsh and delayed its release.

MGM's reaction to The Wind was similar to its attitude towards Gish by 1928. Studio head Louis B. Mayer thought Gish's appeal was out of date. He wanted her to be involved in a scandal appropriate for the era of the flapper. When she refused, Mayer threatened to blacklist her and dropped her from MGM's payroll. Gish made two more films for other companies at the beginning of the sound era, One Romantic Night (1930) and His Double Life (1933), before returning to the stage.

Gish had appeared on stage intermittently while doing films with Griffith. Throughout the 1930s, she focused on her theatrical career and some radio appearances. Much of her work was critically acclaimed. She appeared in a Broadway production of Uncle Vanya in 1930, and of Camille in 1932. In 1936, she played Ophelia in Hamlet. In addition to national tours of certain plays, Gish appeared in the long-running comedy Life with Father on Broadway in 1939, and in Chicago for a 66 week run in 1941-42. Gish also made inroads into the literary circles of the day. She became friends with playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote the role of Blanche DuBois for her in his play A Streetcar Named Desire. Gish was forced to turn down the role because she had to care for her ailing mother.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Gish did more film work, often playing supporting, character-type roles. In 1947, for example, she appeared in David O. Selznik's grandiose Duel in the Sun. In 1955, she appeared in The Night of the Hunter as a shotgun-carrying guardian of orphans. With the growth of commercial television in the late 1940s and 1950s, Gish found roles in the new medium, especially guest spots on episodic shows. She made her television debut in a 1948 episode of Philco Playhouse, "The Late Christopher Bean." Gish returned to Broadway in 1960 when she was cast in All the Way Home.

Despite her successful career, Gish never forgot her roots. In 1969, she began lecturing on college campuses about the beginnings of the American film industry and her work with Griffith entitled "Lillian Gish and the Movies: The Art of Film, 1900-28." Gish also became an advocate for film preservation, perhaps because her own directorial effort had been lost.

Gish continued to work until the late 1980s. In 1978, she appeared in Robert Altman's The Wedding, playing the family's matriarch who dies during a post-nuptial reception. In 1986, she appeared as a crazy mother in Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty. Gish earned an Academy Award nomination for her 105th film role opposite Bette Davis in The Whales of August (1987). In the last decades of her life, Gish was repeatedly honored for her accomplishments. She died of heart failure on February 27, 1993, at her home in New York City. Gish had never married, despite numerous proposals. She was never able to reconcile a career with a husband. In her will, Gish left funds to preserve the work of D.W. Griffith at The Museum of Modern Art.

Further Reading

American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1997.

Great Lives from History: American Women Series, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1995.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-3: Actors and Actresses, 3rd ed., edited by Amy Unterburger, St. James Press, 1997.

Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines: 1993 Cumulation, edited by Louise Mooney, Gale Group, 1993.

Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

America, March 20, 1993, p. 14.

The Boston Globe, March 2, 1993, p. 55.

The Daily Telegraph, March 1, 1993, p. 21.

Journal of Popular Film and Television, Summer 1994, p. 50, p. 58.

Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1993.

The New York Times, December 31, 1982; May 1, 1984; May 11, 1986; March 1, 1993; March 12, 1993; March 2, 1997.

People Weekly, February 9, 1987, p. 70; December 14, 1987, p. 70; March 15, 1993, p. 87.

Time, March 15, 1993, p. 23.

Variety, March 8, 1993. □