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Lillian Gish

Her career spanned 75 years and is best known as a silent film star in D W Griffith’s most acclaimed films, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916).



    An Unseen Enemy

    Two Daughters of Eve

    So Near, yet So Far

    In the Aisles of the Wild

    The One She Loved

    The Painted Lady

    The Musketeers of Pig Alley

    Gold and Glitter

    My Baby

    The Informer


    The New York Hat

    The Burglar’s Dilemma

    A Cry for Help



    Oil and Water

    The Unwelcome Guest

    A Misunderstood Boy

    The Left-Handed Man

    The Lady and the Mouse

    The House of Darkness

    Just Gold

    A Timely Interception

    The Mothering Heart

    An Indian’s Loyalty

    During the Round-Up

    A Woman in the Ultimate

    A Modest Hero

    So Runs the Way

    Madonna of the Storm

    The Battle at Elderbush Gulch

    The Conscience of Hassan Bey



    A Duel For Love

    The Green-Eyed Devil

    Judith of Bethulia

    The Battle of the Sexes

    The Hunchback

    The Quicksands

    Home, Sweet Home

    Lord Chumley

    The Rebellion of Kitty Belle

    The Angel of Contention

    Man’s Enemy

    The Tear That Burned

    The Folly of Anne

    The Sisters



    The Birth of a Nation

    The Lost House

    Enoch Arden

    Captain Macklin

    The Lily and the Rose



    Pathways of Life

    Daphne and the Pirate

    Sold for Marriage

    An Innocent Magdalene


    Diane of the Follies

    The Children Pay

    The House Built Upon Sand



    Souls Triumphant



    Hearts of the World

    The Great Love

    Lillian Gish in a Liberty Loan Appeal

    The Greatest Thing in Life



    A Romance of Happy Valley

    Broken Blossoms

    True Heart Susie

    The Greatest Question



    Remodeling Her Husband

    Way Down East



   Orphans of the Storm



   The White Sister






   Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ



   La Bohème

   The Scarlet Letter



   Annie Laurie

   The Enemy



   The Wind



   One Romantic Night (a.k.a. The Swan)



   His Double Life



   Commandos Strike at Dawn



   Top Man (a.k.a. Man of The Family)



   Miss Susie Slagle’s

   Duel in the Sun



   Portrait of Jennie



   Outward Bound

   The Late Christopher Bean



   The Cobweb

   The Night of the Hunter



   Orders to Kill



   The Unforgiven



   Follow Me, Boys!



   Warning Shot

   The Comedians

   The Comedians in Africa



   A Wedding



   Hambone and Hillie



   Sweet Liberty



   The Whales of August




Lillian Gish was nominated for a Best Actress in a Supporting Role Academy Award  for Duel in the Sun (1946).

She received an honorary Academy Award in 1971 for “For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures. “

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t acting, so I can’t imagine what I would do if I stopped now. ~ Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish was born Lillian Diana Gish on October 14, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio, to Mary Robinson McConnell (1875–1948) and James Leigh Gish (1872–1912). She had a younger sister, Dorothy, who also became a popular movie star.

Gish’s father was an alcoholic. When he left the family, her mother took up acting to support them. The family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they lived for several years with Lillian’s aunt and uncle, Henry and Rose McConnell. The girls attended St. Henry’s School, where they acted in school plays. Their mother opened the Majestic Candy Kitchen, and the girls helped sell popcorn and candy to patrons of the old Majestic Theater, located next door.

When the theater next to the candy store burned down, the family moved to New York, where the girls became good friends with a next-door neighbor, Gladys Smith. Gladys was a child actress who did some work for director D. W. Griffith and later took the stage name Mary Pickford. When Lillian and Dorothy were old enough, they joined the theatre, often traveling separately in different productions. They also took modeling jobs, with Lillian posing for artist Victor Maurel in exchange for voice lessons.

In 1912, their friend Mary Pickford introduced the sisters to Griffith and helped get them contracts with Biograph Studios. Lillian Gish would soon become one of America’s best-loved actresses. Although she was already 19, she gave her age as 16 to the studio.

After 10 years of acting on the stage, she made her film debut opposite Dorothy in Griffith’s short film An Unseen Enemy (1912). At the time established thespians considered “the flickers” a rather base form of entertainment, but she was assured of its merits. Gish continued to perform on the stage, and in 1913, during a run of A Good Little Devil, she collapsed from anemia. Lillian would take suffering for her art to the extreme in a film career which became her obsession. One of the enduring images of Gish’s silent film years is the climax of the melodramatic Way Down East, in which Gish’s character floats unconscious on an ice floe towards a raging waterfall, her long hair and hand trailing in the water. Her performance in these frigid conditions gave her lasting nerve damage in several fingers. Similarly, when preparing for her death scene in La Bohème over a decade later, Gish reportedly did not eat and drink for three days beforehand, causing the director to fear he would be filming the death of his star as well as of the character.

Lillian Gish (1893 - 1993) the screen name of Lillian De Guiche, in a tense moment With Lowell Sherman from 'Way Down East', directed and produced by D W Griffith.

1920: Lillian Gish (the screen name of Lillian De Guiche), in a tense moment With Lowell Sherman from ‘Way Down East’, directed and produced by D W Griffith.

Lillian starred in many of Griffith’s most acclaimed films, including The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Griffith utilized Lillian’s expressive talents to the fullest, developing her into a suffering yet strong heroine. Having appeared in over 25 short films and features in her first two years as a movie actress, Lillian became a major star, becoming known as “The First Lady of American Cinema” and appearing in lavish productions, frequently of literary works such as Way Down East. She became the most esteemed actress of budding Hollywood cinema.

She directed her sister Dorothy in one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), when D. W. Griffith took his unit on location. He told Gish that he thought the crew would work harder for a girl. Gish never directed again, telling reporters at the time that directing was a man’s job. Unfortunately the film is now thought to be lost.

In 1925 Gish reluctantly ended her work with Griffith to take an offer from the recently formed MGM which gave her more creative control. MGM offered her a contract in 1926 for six films, for which she was offered 1 million dollars ($13.4 million in 2015 dollars). She turned down the money, requesting a more modest wage and a percentage so that the studio could use the funds to increase the quality of her films — hiring the best actors, screenwriters, etc. By the late silent era, Greta Garbo had usurped Gish as MGM’s leading lady. Her contract with MGM ended in 1928. Three films with MGM gave her near-total creative control, La Bohème (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). The Wind, Gish’s favorite film of her MGM career, was a commercial failure with the rise of talkies, but is now recognized as one of the most distinguished works of the silent period. Though not a box-office hit as before, her work was respected artistically more than ever, and MGM pressed her with offers to appear in the new medium of sound pictures.

Her debut in talkies was only moderately successful, largely due to the public’s changing attitudes. Many of the silent era’s leading ladies, such as Gish and Pickford, had been wholesome and innocent, but by the early 1930s (after the full adoption of sound and before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced) these roles were perceived as outdated. The ingenue’s diametric opposite, the vamp, was at the height of its popularity. Gish was increasingly seen as a “silly, sexless antique” (to quote Louise Brooks’s sarcastic summary of Gish’s criticism). Louis Mayer wanted to stage a scandal (“knock her off her pedestal”) to garner public sympathy for Gish, but Lillian didn’t want to act both on screen and off, and returned to her first love, the theater. She acted on the stage for the most part in the 1930s and early 1940s, appearing in roles as varied as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s landmark 1936 production of Hamlet (with John Gielgud and Judith Anderson) and Marguerite in a limited run of La Dame aux Camélias.

She was considered for various roles in Gone with the Wind ranging from Ellen O’Hara, Scarlett’s mother, which went to Barbara O’Neil, to prostitute Belle Watling, which went to Ona Munson.

Lillian Gish and Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946)

Lillian Gish and Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun (1946)

Returning to movies, Gish was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1946 for Duel in the Sun. The scenes of her character’s illness and death late in that film seemed intended to evoke the memory of some of her silent film performances. She appeared in films from time to time for the rest of her life, notably in Night of the Hunter (1955) as a rural guardian angel protecting her charges from a murderous preacher played by Robert Mitchum.

Gish made numerous television appearances from the early 1950s into the late 1980s.

In addition to her later acting appearances, Gish became one of the leading advocates of the lost art of the silent film, often giving speeches and touring to screenings of classic works. In 1975, she hosted The Silent Years, a PBS film program of silent films. She was interviewed in the television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980).

Her last film role was appearing in The Whales of August in 1987 at the age of 93, with Vincent Price, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern, in which Davis and she starred as elderly sisters in Maine. Gish’s performance was received glowingly, winning her the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. At the Cannes festival Lillian won a 10-minute standing ovation from the audience. Some in the entertainment industry were angry that Gish did not receive an Oscar nomination for her role in The Whales of August. Gish herself was more complacent, remarking that it saved her the trouble of losing to Cher.

Gish never married or had children. The association between Gish and D. W. Griffith was so close that some suspected a romantic connection, an issue never acknowledged by Gish, although several of their associates were certain they were at least briefly involved. For the remainder of her life, she always referred to him as “Mr. Griffith”. She was also involved with producer Charles Duell and drama critic and editor George Jean Nathan. In the 1920s, Gish’s association with Duell was something of a tabloid scandal because he had sued her and made the details of their relationship public.

Lillian Gish died peacefully in her sleep of heart failure on February 27, 1993, age 99. Her body was interred beside that of her sister Dorothy’s at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City. Her estate was valued at several million dollars, the bulk of which went toward the creation of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust.

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