POSTED August 15 2012

Miss Lillian (Gish)

Lillian Gish in "The Wind"

Lillian Gish was in the first gangster movie, Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912, D.W. Griffith), billed as “the Little Lady,” bedeviled by an enterprising mobster named The Snapper Kid.

From her earliest appearances in movies this ethereal creature who retained an eternal girlishness until her death in 1993 (she reportedly was 100), was the face of American pluck.  For Griffith she did not embody characters but female archetypes: Rectitude in Musketeers, the Hand that Rocks the Cradle of humanity in Intolerance (1916), Innocence Abused in Broken Blossoms(1919). As a screen actress her genius was to let the camera, and by extension, the audience, come to her rather than try to seduce it.

Though “Miss Lillian,” as Griffith called her,  had the disproportionately-large eyes and Kewpie mouth of a porcelain doll, she also gave the impression (offscreen and on) of possessing a steel-reinforced spine.  After she and Griffith parted ways (was it a dispute over money, as she claimed, or something more personal, which she would have been too discreet to discuss?),  she was signed by MGM and made three classics in as many years.

Far more eloquent at playing characters than at embodying ideals of femininity, she was an erotic yet chaste Mimi in La Boheme (1926) opposite John Gilbert for King Vidor, a resourceful and unashamed Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1926) for Victor Sjostrom and then the guilty, tempest-tossed Letty in Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928), her most realized performance.

Alas, MGM barely distributed the movie. In her memoir, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, Gish writes that MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg told her that the studio wanted to renew her contract, but thought that the famously discreet Gish needed to “be knocked off her pedestal.” He offered to “arrange a scandal” for the actress regarded as The Last Virgin during the Jazz Age. She declined.

The screen’s loss was the stage’s gain. In the period between Gish’s silent classics and her resurrection as America’s spinster schoolmarm and conscience (see: Duel in the Sun, The Cobweb, Night of the Hunter) in the 1940s and 1950s, she played in Hamlet, Uncle Vanya and Life With Father, among others.

Though Miss Lillian was devoted to her first director and left a bequest to the Museum of Modern Art to preserve his work, she understood Griffith’s limitations as a man, and as a director. “David’s idea of womanhood was that of the child wife — frail, delicate, compliant…But the dream was in conflict with reality. He idealized womanhood on screen, but when he had to live with it he could not make the adjustment.”

In her final years Miss Lillian was quietly moving as the matriarch in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978and in Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987) as one of two sisters (the other, Bette Davis), arriving at some sort of glasnost, if not reconciliation, at their family’s ancestral home in Maine. At 94, Gish delivers a quietly moving monologue, literally and figuratively letting her hair down before a portrait of her late husband. The scene resonates with a fervor both romantic and erotic.

As he told it, Anderson complimented Gish on her work in the scene’s closeups. Davis reportedly snapped, “She should be! She was there when they were invented!”

Your favorite Gish performance?




  1. wwolfe says:

    I think “Way Down East” is the first that comes to mind. There’s something about the image of one who appears so frail being battered by the elements, yet surviving. It’s very powerful, and something Gish could convey perhaps better than anyone else.

  2. Barb Wertz says:

    Hello Carrie! I’ve been wondering for ages what happened to the Flickgrrl and just bumbled into your new site accidentally.

    Lillian Gish was 99 when she died. That was February 1993 and she would heve been 100 in October. She was born in the same year as Edison’s invention of motion pictures.

    According to the biography “Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen” by Stuart Oderman (silent film pianist at the Museum of Modern Art) Gish and Griffith split because she wanted to do some grown-up roles and he felt that they had reached the end of their professional possibilities. Mr. Oderman was a long-standing personal friend of Miss Gish and dosen’t speculate too much on any more intimate relationship.

    My favorite Gish role is in “Broken Blossoms.” She tried to talk Griffith out of it as she didn’t think she could convincingly play a teenage girl (she was in her mid-20’s) but she pulled it off anyway. Richard Barthelmess was superb too.

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