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The Life and Legacy of Lillian Gish – The first lady of American cinema and a legendary Silent Era performer

Ian Harvey

In cinematic history, no number of superlatives can do justice to the contributions made by the American actress Lilian Gish.

Known as the first lady of American Cinema, one of her many titles, including greatest actress of the silent era and one of the pioneers of female actresses in cinematic history all over the world.

[Lillian Gish, head-and-shoulders portrait] Hartsook Photo. Photo Credit

[Lillian Gish, head-and-shoulders portrait] Hartsook Photo. Photo Credit

Actress Lillian Gish in Motion Picture Magazine May 1914 Photo Credit

Actress Lillian Gish in Motion Picture Magazine May 1914 Photo Credit

 

Actress Lillian Gish on page 38 of the December 1921 Photoplay. Photo Credit

Actress Lillian Gish on page 38 of the December 1921 Photoplay. Photo Credit

 

Actress Lillian Gish Photo Credit

Actress Lillian Gish Photo Credit

 

An Innocent Magdalene is a 1916 American silent drama film directed by Allan Dwan. It is considered to be a lost film Photo Credit

An Innocent Magdalene is a 1916 American silent drama film directed by Allan Dwan. It is considered to be a lost film Photo Credit

Lilian Gish, with her almost one hundred years of life (1893-1993), contributed immensely to the creative industries, acting in the silent films, working on stage, directing and writing for American cinema. Lillian Gish’s career commenced in 1912 with a short silent film, and she worked tirelessly up until 1987. Many of the prevailing and fundamental film performing techniques are attributed to Lillian Gish, and she is considered a pioneer of screen acting by numerous historians.

Born in a modest family in Springfield, Ohio to James Leigh Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell, Lillian Gish did not have an inkling of the grandeur waiting for her in the future. This is precisely due to the lack of any artistic presence in her ancestry, as many previous generations of Gishes were mainly Drunkard ministers.

Gish posed as Elaine of Astolat in Way Down East. Photo Credit

Gish posed as Elaine of Astolat in Way Down East. Photo Credit

 

Hollywood actress Lillian Gish, half-length portrait, wearing coat and hat with flower and long veil. Photo by Charles Albin, New York, 1922. Photo Credit

Hollywood actress Lillian Gish, half-length portrait, wearing coat and hat with flower and long veil. Photo by Charles Albin, New York, 1922. Photo Credit

 

illian Gish, full-length portrait, standing, facing left, wearing pink morning gown of chiffon and lace Photo Credit

Lillian Gish, full-length portrait, standing, facing left, wearing pink morning gown of chiffon and lace Photo Credit

 

Lillian and her sister Dorothy, 1920 Photo Credit

Lillian and her sister Dorothy, 1920 Photo Credit

 

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore in D. W. Griffith’s film Way Down East (1920) Photo Credit

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore in D. W. Griffith’s film Way Down East (1920) Photo Credit

Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms Photo Credit

Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms Photo Credit

 

Lillian Gish, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, leaning on large pottery vase. Photo Credit

Lillian Gish, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, leaning on large pottery vase. Photo Credit

 

Lillian Gish, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, possibly in costume Photo Credit

Lillian Gish, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly left, possibly in costume Photo Credit

 

Lillian Gish. Photo Credit

Lillian Gish. Photo Credit

One of Gish’s ancestors, her great-great-great-grandfather ended up in America on-board the ship Pennsylvania Merchant in 1733 and settled on a land granted by William Penn. Gish’s other great-great-grandfather fought gallantly in the American Revolutionary War and was buried in the Pennsylvania alongside other revolutionary soldiers.

Gish’s father, however, was an alcoholic and a nuisance for the family, and Gish’s mother decided to take up an acting job after her husband abandoned the family. The family moved to Illinois and lived with Lillian’s uncle and aunt, Henry and Rose McConnell.

Lillian Gish. Photo Credit

Lillian Gish. Photo Credit

 

Motion Picture, Nov. 1916 Photo Credit

Motion Picture, Nov. 1916 Photo Credit

 

Portrait of Lillian Gish published in Photoplay, August 1918 Photo Credit

Portrait of Lillian Gish published in Photoplay, August 1918 Photo Credit

Gish stepped into the performance field very early in her life in 1902 when she appeared in a stage play at The Little Red School House in Rising Sun Ohio. In the following years, Gish toured in Her First False Step along with her mother and sister and also danced in a Sarah Bernhardt production in New York City.

Gish’s official career on screen started in 1912, after she honed her acting skills for more than ten years appearing in various stage performances. In 1912 Gish took a role alongside her sister Dorothy in Griffith’s short film An Unseen Enemy (1912). Despite the fact the silent film was received with immense admiration, Gish never left stage behind and came back to it in 1913; she collapsed on stage from anemia during a run of A Good Little Devil.

Lillian often took her acting pretty serious, very serious in some cases, and endured pain to bring her characters to life, a feat that turned into an obsession in her early performances.

In one of her most notable silent era scenes, Gish performed in the climax of the melodramatic Way Down East, floating unconscious on an actual icy floe, slowly going towards a raging waterfall.

Portrait of Lillian Gish Photo Credit

Portrait of Lillian Gish Photo Credit

 

 

Publicity photo of Lillian Gish for Argentinean Magazine Photo Credit

Publicity photo of Lillian Gish for Argentinean Magazine Photo Credit

Her hands and long hair trailing in the water gave the scene life that made it immortal. However, the performance left many of her fingers with lasting nerve damage, but Gish did not think much of it and was glad about the way her performance had turned out. In another scene, a death scene once again, Gish restrained from eating and drinking for over three days to make her act in La Boheme life-like and real; at one stage the director seriously contemplated that he would be filming her star’s real death instead of the character’s demise.

Some of the works Lillian did for Griffiths include the highly acclaimed The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance in the following year, Broken Blossoms soon after the end of the First World War, and Way Down the East and Orphans of the Storm in 1920 and 1921 respectively.

Publicity photo of Lillian Gish from Stars of the Photoplay Photo Credit

Publicity photo of Lillian Gish from Stars of the Photoplay Photo Credit

In 1925 Gish’s career took another dramatic turn when she was offered a contract by the recently formed MGM with a promise that she would have full creative control over her performances. MGM offered a handsome amount in return for a contract for six films starting in 1926. Gish was offered 1 million dollars, equivalent to 14 million dollars in today’s money, but she turned down the offer and decided to settle on a modest amount only if MGM spent the rest of the money on hiring new professionals and on the refurbishment of the facilities. Gish’s works with MGM include La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), in which she had complete artistic control over her acts. The first two movies were tremendous hits, however, The Wind turned out to be a modest hit, despite the fact that it was Gish’s most favorite film with MGM.

The New Movie, Feb. 1930 Photo Credit

The New Movie, Feb. 1930 Photo Credit

The introduction of the talkies did not benefit Gish at all, as she was deemed inappropriate for this new kind of cinema and critics wrote extensively against her taking up the task. Some writers went so far as describing Gish as a ‘silly, sexless antique’ (a quote from Louise Brook’s summary of Gish’s criticism). Despite all the negativity, Gish did not buy into the narrative and carried on working on the stage all through the 1930’s and early 1940’s.

In 1971 Gish was honored with a Special Academy Award ‘For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures’. A few years later in 1979, Gish was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Awards in Los Angeles. She received an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984; Gish was the only second female recipient of the award (Bette Davis received the award in 1977). There is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located precisely at 1720 Vine Street.

Lillian Gish in Paris in 1983 Photo Credit

Lillian Gish in Paris in 1983 Photo Credit

 

Gish in 1973. Photo Credit

Gish in 1973. Photo Credit

Here is another fun read from us: Jean Harlow- The Blonde Bombshell of the 1930s

Lillian Gish died in her sleep due to heart failure on February 27th, 1993 after having lived 99 years, 8 months before her 100th birthday; and was buried beside Dorothy at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.