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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Lillian Gish

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#33 Most Popular - 1917

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1916 Water Color Company Paper Premium featuring Lillian Gish1931 Jasmatzi German Tobacco Card of Lillian GishThe name Lillian Gish is synonymous with “acting for the silent screen.” Probably the single most popular actress of her time – with the possible exception of Mary Pickford – the elder Gish sister made such a memorable impression on contemporary and future audiences that it would be hard to imagine cinema today without her invaluable contributions and undying devotion to the art of filmmaking. She was one of kind, capable of transforming cinema when filmmakers were struggling to have the movies recognized as a valid art form.

It would be fair to say that Lillian, born on October 14, 1893 as Lillian de Guiche, had a lot to do with the way acting for the screen would be defined at the beginning of the 20th century. She was only six when she, along with younger sister Dorothy, appeared on the stage in her home state of Ohio. Coming from a broken family, and with an alcoholic father, Lillian and Dorothy acted for a dual reason: for the love of the craft, and to help their mother make ends meet.

In 1912, when the theatre still reigned supreme as the respected medium for actors, Lillian and Dorothy headed to New York for what would become a fateful meeting with their friend Gladys Smith. This meeting may not have been so fateful had Ms. Smith been anyone but Mary Pickford herself, before she changed her name! As it happened, Smith was working for the Biograph Company, headed by film giant D.W. Griffith.

Smith introduced the Gish sisters to Griffith, who was struck right away with the innocent charm the two of them projected. In record time, Lillian and Dorothy were on board, contract in hand, working on Griffith’s latest picture. This deal would ultimately end their theatre careers forever – some say Lillian would have been one of the greatest stage actresses of all time had she remained on stage, but the screen was beckoning.

Lillian’s collaboration with Griffith would prove beneficial and groundbreaking for them both. Griffith pioneered American filmmaking as an art form, and Lillian was the perfect actress to help see him through his efforts to turn away from two-reel pictures and toward the full-length feature film. He needed an actress who would be, not only charming and expressive on screen, but serve as the anchor keeping a long film together. Lillian, with her ability to convey naiveté and vulnerability, but also to be an extraordinarily subtle Lillian Gish in 1926 The Scarlet Letter Original Still Photo1917 Lilllian Gish Kromo Gravure Cardactress, was the perfect casting choice. In addition, they shared the same ideas about the cinema – both believed from the heart that the movies weren’t a passing fad or simply a mode of entertainment; they both instinctively knew that film was capable of being the next great art form. For nine years, they worked together toward realizing cinema’s potential.

The Lillian Gish that Griffith molded on screen was a Victorian-era classic Woman. She was stunning, and the virtues she conveyed onscreen were suited to the ‘innocent girl’ roles she played, notably in “The Mothering Heart” (1913), where she plays a deserted pregnant woman, and impossibly carries the role off without over-acting. Her ability to tone down the gush factor made her well-ahead of her time, especially since the primary acting method in the silent era was the use of exaggerated expression. Lillian virtually created the art of using small gestures to great effect.

In 1915, Lillian starred in “The Birth of a Nation”, one of the most famous films of all time, and certainly an early triumph of cinema for its textbook use of new editing techniques, if somewhat controversial for its racial subject matter. Other major collaborations with Griffith include “Hearts of the World” (1917) and “Broken Blossoms” (1919), another film famous for addressing racial concerns – in this film, an Oriental man falls in love with Lillian’s Lucy. Here again, Lillian masterfully combines raw emotion credibly and in a way that transcends her time. After making a few more films with Griffiths, like “Way Down East” (1920) and “Orphans of the Storm” Vintage Lillian Gish postcardLillian Gish Kashin Fan Photo(1921), Lillian parted ways with the great director to forge a career of her own.

Since she was famous and adored by this time, Lillian was able to do pretty much what she wanted. She made a couple of films for Inspiration Pictures, then signed a five-film contract with MGM, in 1925. Regarded as a serious actress, she was cast in several literary adaptations, like “La Boheme” and “The Scarlet Letter” (both 1926). But the tides were already turning for Lillian – her films were becoming slightly less profitable, since she commanded such a big salary. But she didn’t go out without a fight – one of the best films she ever made was with MGM: 1928’s “The Wind”, a heartbreaking story about a woman terrorized by a stranger; she eventually destroys him and goes insane. All her genius was on display in this performance.

But times were changing. Although she virtually made it possible and desirable for silent screen women to be the ultimate stars of the movies – male actors would become much more popular in the talkies – a new, more modern type of starlet was emerging, in the form of almost-masculine Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. They represented the turn to modernity in the roaring 1920s and swinging 1930s, whereas Lillian was the belle of an older, more nostalgic time.

Rather than give up entirely though, Lillian turned to Broadway and even television, still acting in occasional film roles – there was always demand for someone of Lillian’s almost magisterial film presence. In 1947, she appeared in “Duel in the Sun”, and she continued to act well into older age. When in her 90s, she made her last film, with none other than Bette Davis: 1987’s The Whale of August – her star shone just as brightly then as it did when she became the first great movie actress. All told, there are 109 screen and television credits attached to Miss Lillian’s name.

As an art and popular form, the cinema owes a lot to Lillian Gish.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter each month.  Next issue, John Barrymore.

Other Lillian Gish Pages:

Denny Jackson's Lillian Gish Page -- The actress who spans more decades than anyone else in film history!
Lillian Gish Memorial Site -- A tribute to Miss Gish including a biography, filmography, and photos including her tombstone.