Lillian Gish: The First Lady of American Cinema





Lillian Gish was one of the most influential and famous actors in Hollywood’s history. Her first film was in 1912 and a career spanning seventy-five years followed. Gish’s partnership with pioneering director D. W. Griffith is regarded as one of the greatest collaborative relationships of all time. Some of their films include Way Down East (1920), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and the controversial, and highest grossing film of the silent era, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Not only having a successful acting career, Gish was also a writer, director and producer. She received an honorary Academy Award in 1971. As the years passed, the media dubbed Gish “The First Lady of American Cinema.”

Lillian Diana Gish was born on the 14th of October, 1893, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father left when she was young. Running low on money and with nowhere else to turn, Gish’s mother, Mary, and her daughters joined a group of traveling actors. Gish and her sister, Dorothy, made their stage debuts in 1902. They proved to be extremely popular in melodramas, making $10 a week for their efforts. (No figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation.) The three women travelled all over America, taking any roles they could and saving every cent possible. It was during this period Gish met future silent screen legend Mary Pickford and the two became lifelong friends.

In 1912, Gish and Dorothy appeared before a camera for the first time in An Unseen Enemy. Pickford had previously introduced Griffith to the sisters and he decided to give them a go. On set, Griffith thought the two women were twins and found it hard to distinguish them apart at a distance. He gave them different coloured hair ribbons; blue for Gish and red for Dorothy. Griffith very much enjoyed working with the two, especially Gish. He cast them often in his one- and two-reel shorts. Gish appeared in near forty silent shorts between 1912 and 1914. She received universal acclaim for her performance as The Young Wife in The Mothering Heart (1913).


Dorothy and Gish in An Unseen Enemy (1912)

As silent films became more sophisticated and had longer run times, Gish starred in many of Griffith’s signature feature films. In 1915, she was cast as Elise Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation. The film was a critical success, but drew a lot of controversy for its negative depictions of African-Americans. It had white people dressed up in blackface. Gish stayed clear from commenting on the issues, but always defended that it was never Griffith’s intention to be racist.


Dorothy, Griffith and Gish

In the climax of Way Down East, Gish, Griffith and the film crew shot on a real frozen river during a blizzard. Gish had to dangle her hand and hair in freezing cold water for hours at a time. She never once complained and crew members noticed how dedicated to the role she was. Though the scene is now regarded as one of the greatest in Hollywood’s history, Gish would experience health concerns for the rest of her life. She lost partial feeling in her hand. Gish’s last film with Griffith was Orphans of the Storm in 1922.


Gish on the ice in Way Down East (1920)

Gish directed her first and only movie in 1920. The film, Remodelling Her Husband, starred her sister Dorothy. With no known footage existing today, it is now considered a lost film. Around this period, Gish supervised the construction of a new film studio for Griffith too.


Photoplay Magazine (December, 1921)

In 1924, Gish signed a $800,000 picture deal with MGM. This made her one of the highest paid and sought after actors in Hollywood at the time. Under MGM, Gish appeared in classics such as The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). She made her “talkie” film debut in One Romantic Night in 1930.

By the early 1930s, Gish and MGM’s relationship had broken down and they parted ways. She returned to the theatre and focused her attention there. Gish also had her radio debut in the early 1930s. She scarcely acted in films during this period. In 1948, Gish appeared on television for the first time. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Duel in the Sun (1946). Gish also received critical praise for The Night of the Hunter (1955).


Gish accepting her Oscar in 1971

Gish was active in films throughout the 1960s to 1980s. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. As part of the pre-production for the western The Unforgiven (1960), director John Huston and star Bert Lancaster intended to teach Gish how to shoot. They were shocked to discover she already knew and was quicker and more accurate than them both.


Gish and Davis in The Whales of August (1987)

In 1987, Gish starred along side Bette Davis in The Whales of August. At 93-years-old, this made Gish the oldest actress ever to star in a leading role. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on February 27, 1993. Every year on Gish’s birthday, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, show at least one of her films as a tribute.



By: Matthew J. Healy


Sources:

50 Facts About Lillian Gish - The First Lady of American Cinema (http://www.boomsbeat.com/articles/105983/20160119/50-facts-lillian-gish-first-lady-american-cinema.htm)
Charles Affron - Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life (Book)
Lillian Gish, 99, a Movie Star Since Movies Began, is Dead (http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/01/movies/lillian-gish-99-a-movie-star-since-movies-began-is-dead.html?pagewanted=all)
Lillian Gish - Encyclopaedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lillian-Gish)
Lillian Gish - IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001273/)
Lillian Gish: The Actor’s Life for Me (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/lillian-gish-about-lillian-gish/614/)
Lillian Gish - Women Film Pioneers Project (https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lillian-gish/)

The Official Website of Lillian Gish (https://www.lilliangish.com/)

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