The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
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.
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.
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
actress, 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” (1921), Lillian parted ways with the great director to
forge a career of her own.
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
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,
Other Lillian Gish Pages:
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.