Lillian Gish – 1st Lady of the Silent Screen
Lillian started working with a famed director after being sponsored by a close friend. Her frail build but strong mind gave her parts that many women would have turned down. She often played a down trodden woman who’s man has taken advantage of her to the point of leaving her, oft times with a baby or young child to care for with no more means than her own willpower.
Lillian herself was no wallflower. She quickly got to know the business and soon became her own boss; picked her directors, leading men and scripts. She had complete control of her creative efforts and no one who knew her even thought for a moment that they could get around her, small though she was, and no one tried. She was too often right. Her ideas were sound and what she touched turned to gold.
She is quoted as saying, “Let’s pretend.” Lillian said those words and she lived by them almost her entire life so that a nation and those another continent away could live, love and follow her into that make believe world found only on the other side of a picture screen.
Her story began October 14, 1896 in Springfield Ohio. Born to a drifter father and a future actress she seemed destined to live a parallel life with that of her future screen persona. Nearly a year and a half later a sister named Dorothy was born. With their father often gone, money became tight and their mother took the suggestion of friends and went on the stage. At the age of five Lillian stepped out into the footlights and there before the public’s eyes a star was reaching higher and higher towards its eventual zenith.
For the next eleven years the sisters would always be on the road. They no longer had a home. They lived the world of the performer to fullest complete with the constant hassle of finding a job and times when their food ran out. Always they were together and always they took care of each other.
It wasn’t until 1912 that things began to look up for Lillian. It began with a chance meeting of an old friend. Nineteen-year-old Gladys Smith was working steadily and invited Lillian and Dorothy to follow her into the new medium known as motion pictures. In that world she was known as Mary Pickford and she was quite successful. Though she no longer worked for the Biograph studio, she brought the girls to her old boss, D. W. Griffith and suggested he hire them. That same day they made their first film, “An Unseen Enemy.” It truly was a family affair as their mother was granted a part as well.
From then on things moved upward. Lillian became Griffith’s biggest find thanks to Mary and Lillian remained with him loyally for a decade. Dorothy worked with her sister in the beginning and shared her own amount of success but it would be her older sister, Lillian who would become an international name.
In those days the world was in some ways a lot closer. We didn’t have radio at first and when we did it wasn’t for the masses. Television was just an idea in a lunatic scientist’s mind. Yet the movies had become wildly popular. They didn’t talk but they didn’t need to.
The silence of the movies was a blessing in so many ways. The actor or actress’s own body became the lighthouse into the character’s very soul. We could see in their eyes every emotion in the human psyche. What they thought, what they felt, all that could be portrayed in a single flick of the wrist. Pantomime has many forms beyond that of a circus performer and the men and women of the silent screen knew exactly what they were doing. Lillian was a top master of this delicate art form. In her eyes you saw the misery of a trapped soul and you saw the beginning flicker of knowledge when a person realizes they have the power to stand up and begin again. For that she became widely known as The First Lady of the Silent Screen.
Beyond the art form, silence of the screen was a blessing to the masses. With the change of the flickered dialogue on the screen any nation in the world could watch a film produced in any nation in the world. Stars quickly became known internationally over night. Lillian was known the world over. She once said that when the movie began to talk the world became a little quieter. No longer could we share our films across the world. Sound had shut us out.
By 1928 her style of acting had became antiquated for many by the emergence of the glamour girl and the It girl’s of the roaring twenties. Fragile was supplanted by self-reliant and Lillian gave up the screen for the stage of her youth. There she once again found success alongside other stars of the screen. However she never turned her back on the medium that had made her a household name. Often she returned to the screen in bit parts and supporting roles and the audience welcomed her returns with relish.
She made her last film The Whales of August in 1987. Lillian had accomplished what few had; she’d become an icon that has lasted more than a lifetime. She died in 1993 at the ripe old age of 97 but she is long from forgotten. How could she? She made over a hundred films and her career spanned a remarkable eight decades. While the academy awards were not in practice until after she’d partially retired, Hollywood knew how to reward one of its greatest stars. In 1984 the American Film Institute awarded her its Life Achievement Award, which she humbly accepted from the hands of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the man she most closely viewed as family, the stepson of her best friend Mary Pickford. Lillian herself never married but nonetheless she had lived a charmed life once the movies caught up to her. Suitors were many but none stood high enough to her ambition. She was content to be who she was and for that, her fans can be grateful. Thank you Miss Lillian.
A List of Her Most Memorable Rolls:
- The Birth of a Nation (1915)
- Broken Blossoms (1919)
- Way Down East (1920)
- Orphans of a Storm (1922)
- The Scarlet Letter (1926)
- The Wind (1928)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955)