There is only one “First Lady of American Cinema,” and her name is Lillian Gish.
She made her debut on the stage at the very dawn of the 20th century, in 1902, at her native Ohio’s Little Red School House in Risingsun. The young actress was just nine years old at the time.
In 1912 she made her first appearance on screen in one of D.W. Griffith’s short films, An Unseen Enemy, along with her younger sister, Dorothy. From here on, everything would change–the movie star was born; Gish’s affair with the big screen endured for a lifetime.
A photo of young Lillian Gish
Gish’s face appearing in close-up for the Photoplay magazine cover (1921)
Lillian Gish as Anna Moore in Way Down East (1920).
Gish here featured in Motion Picture Magazine (May 1914)
Look at those gorgeous eyes: Gish appearing in one of the first American film fan magazines, Photoplay, in 1921
Simply beautiful: a head and shoulder portrait of Lillian, wearing a white dress Photo by …trialsanderrors -CC BY 2.0
Gish starred in a number of Griffith’s movies, including one of the most commercially successful and controversial films of the period, The Birth of a Nation.
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But perhaps the most memorable scenes ever associated with Gish appeared in cinemas in 1920; it was a scene from Way Down East, another of Griffith’s big accomplishments.
On the set of La Bohème. From left to right: cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, director King Vidor, producer Irving Thalberg and actress Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish in her New York apartment. photo by Allan Warren – CC BY-SA 3.0
The scene in question is a winter scene where Gish is filmed lying down on a slab of ice drifting in a river.
The filming of the scene took extended hours of work and Gish even suffered lasting nerve damage in one of her hands because it needed to be dipped in the ice-cold water all that time. Just how close her relationship was with Griffith is unresolved. While several people working closely with the twosome believed they were a romantic item for a short while, Gish herself never confirmed it.
For the photo session in her New York apartment, Gish opted for an elegant blue dress photo by Allan Warren – CC BY-SA 3.0
Back in time, a caption from 1930 when Lillian Gish was featured in Jed Harris’ Broadway rendering of Uncle Vanya
Another head-and-shoulder portrait of Lillian Gish, appearing with a veil and leaning on a pottery vase. Photo:…trialsanderrors – by Hartsook Photo CC BY 2.0
A caption from 1983, Gish is here photographed in Paris, France Photo by Menerbes – CC BY-SA 3.0
Lillian Gish playing her character Lucy Barrows in Broken Blossoms (1919)
Lillian Gish starring as Anna Moore in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920)
Strike a sisterly pose: Lillian with her sister, Dorothy. The year is 1920.
Lillian Gish here photographed in a pink gown made of chiffon and lace
A 1922 photograph of Gish in New York, sporting a coat and hat with flower and a veil
An other-worldly appearance of Gish in her films
Lillian Gish, during the filming of one of her most memorable scenes for Way Down East. This is at White River Junction, Vermont.
Gish in her New York apartment (1973), photo by Allan Warren – CC BY-SA 3.0
She also appeared in Innocent Magdalene, a silent 1916 drama, now considered to have been lost. Several more of her movies are also deemed lost, including one that she herself directed
Gish wearing a white dress and a hat
As if she has tears in her eyes
Lillian Gish, hands in the pockets of her dress Photo by …trialsanderrors -CC BY 2.0
Gish had a life well-lived, and a life well-played on the big screen until the end.
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She became the oldest actress in American cinema to be offered a leading role when she said yes to co-starring with Bette Davis in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August in 1987. Gish was aged 93, and this would be her last appearance on screen.
Gorgeous young Lillian. This caption with the flowers is from 1916.
Lillian Gish featured here in Photoplay magazine (August 1918)
A Lillian Gish portrait, leaning on the side
Her face on the 1913 poster for An Indian’s Loyalty. That year she starred in 17 films, two of her roles were uncredited.
During her 75-year career, Gish claimed most of the awards and lifetime acknowledgments an actress can possibly collect.
Her Hollywood Walk of Fame star was added in 1960. A little over a decade later, in 1971, she was given her Honorary Academy Award. A year after that her name forever entered the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Lillian Gish featured in an Argentinean Magazine
Her chin on the hands, another gorgeous publicity photo of Gish
Lillian Gish in a profile (1930)
The American Film Institute distinguished Gish as the 17th greatest female star of Classic American cinema. That her reach was so great is demonstrated even outside of academia or official prizes. Lillian Gish was acknowledged by the Smashing Pumpkins, who adopted her surname for the title debut album in 1991.
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Gish died aged 99, memorably in winter-time, in February 1993.