Four Icons of Early Cinema – Part 2: Lillian Gish

This is a short excursion into the film careers of four extraordinary female actors of early cinema. All four women set new standards in dramatic performance, all came to fame as outstanding beauties of their time, and yet all brushed away vanity to portray diverse roles, impaired personalities and to smash down stereotypes.

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Lillian Gish (1893–1993) is known these days as the ‘First Lady of American Cinema’. She was a phenomenal star of the silent era of film. Gish was born into a religious family in Ohio in 1883. Her father was an alcoholic and left when she was young. Her mother took to acting to support her children Lillian and Dorothy, both of whom took to the stage by age five. They moved to New York when the Gish sisters were teenagers; fortuitously next-door to child actor Gladys Smith, who later took the name Mary Pickford. Pickford introduced them to D.W. Griffith, who cast the sisters in a 17 minute film An Unseen Enemy (1912). They play terrified victims to a bandit but ultimately gather their senses into a resourceful plan of escape. Lillian Gish appeared in more Griffith films in the following years. A notable one is the 1913 The Mothering Heart, a film about a wife betrayed. Griffith and Gish collaborated to bring about cinematic ‘realism’ to the screen, the power-punch of the sufferings of real life of ordinary folk. Gish, from serene housewife to suspicious wife and then despairing and heart-broken woman – all portrayed in a series of expressive close-ups – emerges as the cinematic embodiment of a real woman with a beating heart. So many Americans found her endearing and inspiring. Bette Davis, some seven decades later complemented Gish, saying ‘she invented the close-up’. Gish, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, has one of the most iconic faces of the silent era of American film.

Griffith cast Lillian Gish as the female lead in the technically innovative but deeply racist Birth of a Nation (1915), the highest grossing film of the silent era. Here too, she is the terrified victim who ultimately uses her wits to stand up to the menace. The film critic Robert Ebert describes it: ‘a great film that argues for evil.’ Gish also appeared in Griffith’s next film Intolerance (1916), which was in part a response to the enormous criticism to The Birth of a Nation about its racially inflammatory nature. Though it is a more complex film – loosely weaved together with four different narratives – it is also a pseudo-intellectual swipe at Griffith’s critics, namely those who objected to his glorification of racial hatred. Both films are in excess of three hours. They are cinematic ‘epics’ of the silent era. Incidentally, Quentin Tarantino says that his Django Unchained (2012) is an alternative narrative to The Birth of a Nation. It’s worth noting that Griffith and Gish also filmed Broken Blossoms (1919), in which a brutalised girl Lucy (Gish) from London’s East End falls in love with a Chinese immigrant. Though it is a little cringe-worthy these days, for its time it was controversial and it did place the subject of xenophobia on the screen. Gish went on to make a large number of films, many of them with a humanist theme or even explicitly calling out prejudice, but her starring role in The Birth of a Nation would come back to bite her more than a hundred years after it was made (see below).

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Lillian and Dorothy Gish in An Unseen Enemy (1912)

Gish contracted the flu in the 1918 flu pandemic, and almost died. But she recovered and after a break of some months went on to make several films over the next decade. She even directed her sister Dorothy in Remodelling Her Husband (1920). In the same year Lillian starred in Way Down East (1920), again playing the abused girl deceived by a cad. Gish suffered frostbite – and lifelong injury to her hand – after spending hours face down on an ice flow at the end of the movie. Her hair froze and snapped off shortly after filming the scene:

The short excerpt above is the scene where Anna (Gish) lays barely conscious on an ice flow as it makes it way towards a waterfall. Gish and her rescuer David (Richard Barthelmess) did their own stunts. Personally, I think it is one of the most riveting scenes in cinematic history. It is just phenomenal. It is a remarkable piece of cinema that influenced the final tragic scene in the Soviet film Mother (1926) by Vsevelod Pudovkin. Way Down East was one of several Gish films that influenced realism in European cinema. And it was not the first or last time that Gish suffered in the name of art. She starved herself, froze herself and hurt herself in the name of art and realism.

The Wind was released in 1928, and was one of the last silent films of the American silent era, and was the last silent film in which Gish starred, which some claim was her greatest film. Gish urged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios to make a film adaptation of the novel of the same name. She suggested the leading man, a Swedish actor named Lars Hanson, and she appointed Victor Sjöström as director. Gish at this time had made just under 80 films, and had been in dozens of stage plays. Her influence in the industry reached beyond her acting ability, which was always dramatic and tension-filled. She was copied and revered in cinema all across the world.

In The Wind Letty Mason (Gish) travels to an isolated ranch in Texas. On the way there are seemingly endless miles of sand and constantly blowing wind that drives her crazy. And she develops a haunting fear of it. With no money and limited resources she marries the boozy Lige. But unexpectedly the man she really loves turns up. However, because she is almost faint as the wind is howling outside, he takes her to bed. Next day he tries to convince her to leave with him but she is now fearful, and holds up a gun to keep him at bay; it goes off. Letty buries him but the wind uncovers the body, and she descends into psychological terror. In this film, the wind is almost a second character that triggers a vulnerable psychology in Letty. It is a wonderfully portrayed character with depth, and Gish is superb. But perhaps because of the complexity of the character’s psychology and her rejecting the man she initially loved in favour of a man she didn’t, the film was panned by critics. But over the years it has become something of a classic. It broke new ground in bringing complex characters to the screen.

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Gish (Laura Belle) and Jennifer Jones (Pearl) in Duel in the Sun (1946)

With the emergence of sound in cinema in 1929 Gish returned to the stage throughout much of the 1930s. In the post-war period Gish once again dabbled in film and even appeared on TV and radio, but she was never far from live theatre. And she never shied away from films or plays that were controversial, including Duel in the Sun (1946) and the dark thriller The Night of the Hunter (1955). Duel in the Sun is a twist on a western that came to be nicknamed ‘Lust in the Dust’, and is another film that deals with racial prejudice. Pearl, a girl of mixed descent between a Comanche (Native American) mother and Texan aristocrat. Following a violent end to her parents’ relationship, Pearl travels by stagecoach to live with white relatives, including the motherly Laura Belle (Gish). She becomes involved in a love affair with a white man, but ends up with another man. This was David O. Selznick’s first film after his blockbuster Gone with the Wind (1939). It received two Academy Awards, including Jones for Best Actress and Gish for Best Supporting Actress. Another film, now considered an American classic but panned at the time of its release was The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum (Reverend Harry Powell) as the menacing serial killer and self-proclaimed preacher of morality, Shirley Winters (Willa Harper) as a widow victim and Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper) as a surprisingly defiant and strong old lady that is determined to protect the children that Reverend Powell has now set his sights on. The whole cast is exceptional. Perhaps this tale of good versus evil is characteristic of Gish on screen, always on the side of good.

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Gish in The Night of the Hunter (1955)

From the 1950s onwards Gish appeared on American television, on radio and continued to work on stage. She made the occasional film, but rarely as the lead. She was an enthusiastic champion for the preservation of silent film. In 1972 Gish was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. At the age of 94 after more than a hundred films to her name she appeared in her last film in 1987 opposite the great Bette Davis in The Whales of August. She received several awards and accolades for her performance. At the Cannes Film Festival that year Gish was given a 10-minute standing ovation, but was surprisingly snubbed at the Oscars that year. Gish simply stated that it saved her the trouble of ‘losing to Cher.’

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Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August (1987)

The following year she had a small cameo role in a radio play, which was to be her last performance. She died in 1993, six months short of her hundredth birthday. Lillian Gish had performed in more than a hundred films over a period of 75 years and in countless theatre productions for 90 years. There is no other actor in the world of her calibre that has had such an enduring career in cinema and theatre.

Gish’s influence is far-reaching. François Truffaut’s 1973 film Day for Night (La Nuit Américaine) was dedicated to the Gish sisters. The Smashing Pumpkins debut album Gish (1991) is titled in her honour. The Gish sisters spent much of their lives supporting the arts and in particular young actors, especially young female actors. A boutique hotel in Beverly Hills that had once been the home of Lillian and Dorothy Gish was later converted by them into a home for young actresses coming out to find their way in Hollywood. And Lillian’s estate went to establish the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust.

However, In July 2019 the Bowling Green State University (Ohio) student body removed Dorothy and Lillian Gish’s names from the university theatre, which had been receiving substantial financial assistance from the trust fund set up by the Gish sisters. They objected to Lillian Gish’s 1915 appearance in the film The Birth of a Nation (filmed 104 years earlier). Despite strong objections to this decision from a wide range of cinema heavy weights, including Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren and James Earl Jones, the decision of the student body has stood firm. While I think it is a little unfair to treat the Gish sisters in this way (the university has not refused the financial assistance), the issue is not so much about the Gish sisters but about their association to a film that some students feel uncomfortable with given the present political climate.  Of course I understand this, though I do suspect the film BlacKkKlansman may have been a motivating force (an excellent film, by the way). In any event, Lillian Gish has made her presence felt, and on balance I think it has to be recognised that Lillian Gish was an exceptional artist on the big screen.

2 thoughts on “Four Icons of Early Cinema – Part 2: Lillian Gish

  1. JJ McDermott says:

    Gish was an exceptional artist on the big screen and her appearance in The Birth of a Nation should not take away from that. As much as the contents of that film are repulsive, it was a hugely significant technical event in the history of cinema and deserves to be watched, scrutinised and criticised by film historians. Gish’s early on-screen personas and later, her off-screen activism, were crucial to the positive development of American cinema. Along with other early stars such as Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Theda Bara and Mary Pickford, we would have been less well off without the Gish sisters, that’s for sure.


  2. Robin Stevens says:

    Agreed. I think, also, Lillian Gish was a teenager on contract to the all-powerful studio system. She made one film after another – perhaps eight films a year – for ten years. Only later did she have some effective say in what she would or would not do. There’s a big discussion to be had about criticism of the industry over racism, gender, nationalism, warfare and violence, but focusing on a teenage actor or any actor under a strict contract is in danger of avoiding the real issue in favour of a knee-jerk social media frenzy. Even more important is to see how cinema has reflected the views of society and how that has changed over time. I do have some empathy for the student body in this instance, and I do understand why they made the decision they did. But I think they handled it poorly.

    Liked by 1 person

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