Movies and TVSilent Screen Stars

Introduction to Lillian Gish: A Silent Screen Star

The First Lady of American Cinema, Lillian Gish, was a born superstar. She served the industry of film and theatre for a great part of her life. With her endless and tireless efforts, the cinema of the country changed its course. She was entitled to be the most famous lady in all of the United States. The beautiful silent actress was popular amongst the audience for her amazing talent and wonderful performances.

Lillian knew very well how to deliver emotions through her facial expressions, and she considered the silent film industry as her inborn skill. 

Her work outshined everyone else’s, making her one of the most popular actresses of all time. 

Childhood

Mary Robinson McConnell (Mary Gish) carrying her daughter Dorothy Gish and holding her older daughter Lillian Gish by the hand in front of theatrical scenery

Lillian Gish came into this world on 14 October 1893, in the household of Mary Robinson and McConnell. She was born in the state of Ohio, United States. Her family consisted of a total of three members, her parents, and a little sister named Dorothy, who always used to look up to her big sister.

The actress had a family that could be perfect. But she was very young when her alcoholic father abandoned them, leaving the rest of the family to fend for themselves. When he left, Lillian’s mother took charge of the home. She used to work tirelessly from day to night, in order to support her girls. 

She started her infamous majestic candy shop right along with the majestic theatre center. Her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, would sell popcorn to the audience that came to watch at the theatre. Thus, Lillian got her exposure to the industry of silent theatres from a very early age, though not in the context one would expect.

Lillian was always attracted to the idea of working as an actress. She loved to explain her feelings through her expressions, and this personality later became her strongest feature that helped her get the fame that she deserved.

In later years, she also joined a theatre school with her sister, Dorothy. Both of them would practice and learn the skills of silent acting together. So, the talent that the world saw had been groomed at a very early age.

Early Life

The first lady of American cinema made her debut in the industry when she was very young. Her first theatre debut was in 1902. Unlike many actors that struggled a lot in the early years, Lillian instantly fell in love with her work and continued it for ten years. Throughout that decade, Lillian worked with immense passion and interest. People started to recognize her because of her impeccable talent and flawless delivery. Soon enough, she became the main focus of most of the stage. 

Unfortunately, the majestic theatre was destroyed by a fire. This caused great loss to the family’s candy shop as well. Devastated and struck by tragedy, they didn’t know what to do. Finally, they decided to move to New York City, where they could have a fresh start.

Start of a New Chapter

When Lillian and her family moved to New York City, they coincidently became neighbors with the famous silent actress of that time, Gladys Louise Smith. Gladys was an amazing American-Canadian actress, more commonly known as the girl with golden curls. She later took the stage name of Mary Pickford and was known by it ever since. When Lillian met her, her life took a 180-degree shift.

Mary Pickford in 1921

Mary and Lillian got close pretty quickly. They started working together in theatres. What really allowed their friendship to bloom was the fact that both the actresses supported each other instead of stabbing in the back. Finding constant support instead of rivalry helped Lillian get the career she always wanted. 

In 1912, Lillian was introduced to W.D Griffith by her friend Mary. Griffith was a popular director at the time, and he hired Lillian immediately. He saw her potential and knew that she was capable of transforming the industry of films, and he wanted to be the director who introduced her to this world. 

 

Lillian made her first debut in the film industry in the year 1912 with the project of the movie named “An Unseen Enemy”. As soon as this movie was released, it became highly popular. People from all around the state started to appreciate the talent that Lillian possessed and admired her for it. She had featured in 25 movies in a short period of just two years and every single one of them got popular.

Lillian worked with Griffith for about eight years. During this time, she appeared in a lot of movies. Her first main role was in a 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation”. Even though she was pleased about working with Griffith, she left him in the year 1925, to join the MGM group.

Lillian was a hard-working woman. She worked with MGM for a short time, but, produced some amazing pieces. She made a total of three movies with them, and all of them brought her fame and popularity.

The Downfall of the Silent Industry

By the year 1930, sound movies were getting a lot of public attention. People started to appreciate the vocal dialogues as opposed to the expressions. The industry began to evolve very quickly, and Lillian could not cope up with it.

When she was cast in the movies with sound, the audience started calling her a sad, emotionless, and devastated lady. What made things worse was the fact that the new actresses didn’t accept her either. The rejection made her feel like an alien among them. This harsh behavior broke Lillian’s heart, and she decided to escape the world of films, to join the theatre again.

The End of the Acting Era

When the actress came back into her comfort zone of theatre, she worked on and off and produced some beautiful masterpieces. Her loyal fans that had known her talent from the silent acting career did not leave her and stood by her during her shallow days. Her acting career continued its bumpy journey, and at last, in 1940, Lillian retired from this life and left the field for good. 

Lillian made her final appearance on the screen when she performed a cameo role on Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat”. The actress bid the industry farewell, with her last words to her audience being “good night”.

The Experience of Other Fields

Although Lillian worked in the field of theatre and films for a long time, she still managed to experience the taste of other zones as well. She invested a short amount of time working as a director. But, after one film, she realized that direction is not her forte. So, she left her direction career after one project, that later went missing.

Lillian also worked as a radio star for a brief time. She produced a number of good shows that were appreciated by the listeners. But just like direction, she knew that she was not made for the radio as well. And soon enough, she left it too.

When the lady of American cinema left the film industry, she started to work for social services. She would carry out programs and conferences. She was also one of the few that defended the silent film industry in its last days. And later, as a tribute, she arranged a PBS program named the silent years, in honor of her beloved industry.

The Health Issues

Lillian was a brilliant woman of great passion. Unfortunately, she faced a lot of health problems in her life. But she never let her health come in the way of her success. She worked her way through diseases and became the star she always wanted to be.

When Gish was filming A Good Little Devil, she fainted on the set because of her uncontrolled anemia. She also survived the 1918 flu pandemic like a warrior. Later in her life, the actress was known to face heart problems as well. But that never got in the way either.

This fearless behavior of Lillian made her stand out in the industry. Even after her health problems, she worked and proved to everyone that when you want something, no power on earth can stop you.

Death

In the year 1993, on 27 February, Lillian Gish lost her life to heart failure. She is now interred with her sister, Dorothy, at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in the city of New York. 

Gish was a living example of hard work and passion. She lived for 99 years, and throughout that whole period, she worked tirelessly. She achieved whatever she liked and made an exemplary model for every actor. 

Portrait of Lillian Gish in her New York Apartment when she was 80 years old

Filmography

Some of Lillian Gish’s famous movies include: 

  • 1912:  An Unseen Enemy
  • 1912: The Musketeers of Pig Alley
  • 1912: Gold and Glitter
  • 1913: The Left-Handed Man
  • 1915: The Birth of a Nation 
  • 1916: Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages 
  • 1919: Broken Blossoms 
  • 1920: Way Down East 
  • 1928: The Wind
  • 1942: Commandos Strike at Dawn
  • 1946: Duel in the Sun
  • 1948: Portrait of Jennie
  • 1955: The Night of the Hunter
  • 1966:  Follow Me, Boys!

Legacy

Decades have passed since Lillian died, but her name is still considered to be on the list of America’s Top Female Actresses. She has done a lot of work to change the industry of film and theatre, and none of her efforts have gone unnoticed. 

Because of her untiring work, in 1971, she was given a Special Academy Award to appreciate her efforts in evolving motion pictures. Lillian was indeed a role model. Moreover, a French director and producer, François Truffaut, made a movie titled Day for Night in 1973 and dedicated it to the famous sisters Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish. And the street where Lillian lived her early life in Massillon, Ohio is named after Gish as she fondly referred to it as her hometown. Throughout her life, she worked with immense passion and honesty. Her work and name will simply never fade away.

She has a star of her name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1720 Vine Street.

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