The Gish Sisters


Lillian Gish virtually invented screen acting. Entering films at a time when most "serious" thespians regarded motion pictures as a rather base form of employment, Gish brought to her roles a sense of craft substantially different from that practiced by her theatrical colleagues. In time, her sensitive performances elevated not only her stature as an actress, but also the reputation of movies as an art form. Both Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy were introduced to stage work at an early age. In 1912 the girls travelled to New York to pay a courtesy call on their friend Gladys Smith, who soon came to be more widely known as Mary Pickford. Smith was acting at the time in films for the Biograph Company. At the studio the Gish sisters were introduced to Biograph's top director, D.W. Griffith, who was smitten with the girls' innocent charm and cast them immediately in his current production. Lillian and Dorothy soon gave up their theatrical ambitions and signed with Griffith's unit. Griffith's contributions to the cinema have been well-documented, but his association with Lillian Gish was one of those rare times when two visions combine to revolutionize an art form. Gish was a firm believer in art as a higher ideal; she did not consider acting to be a mere profession. She soon came to share her director's opinion that film was a legitimate medium which inherently possessed more potential for artistic expression than the stage. The pictures Griffith and Gish made together over nine years bear witness to this conviction. There was a certain symbiotic nature to the Gish-Griffith collaborations. Gish's angelic beauty was emblematic of Griffith's Victorian notions of womanhood, but her manner also served an important narrative purpose. In most Griffith films tension is created when an innocent young girl is imperiled by the capriciousness of a cruel world. The climax of these films is often a rescue scene which requires the actress to look suitably distraught. Gish excelled at playing the victim in the early two-reelers, but as Griffith began experimenting with longer pictures her roles assumed a different function. Rather than the object of endangerment, Gish and her tremendous acting ability were required to help sustain the story. As the films became more complex, so did her characterizations. For example, in THE MOTHERING HEART (1913), Gish plays a pregnant wife deserted by her husband. She gives birth alone, the baby dies, and she wanders out into the garden and thrashes the blossoms off a rose bush. This moment of tragedy could have easily become maudlin, but Gish handles the scene with such restraint that we only feel the young woman's grief. The strategy of controlling emotion--particularly in close-ups--became a hallmark of Gish's technique. Unlike the arm-waving, eyelid-fluttering histrionics engaged in by other actresses (a method carried over from stage productions), Gish practiced the art of the small yet meaningful gesture. Gish left Biograph with the rest of the Griffith players in 1913. Gish perfected her skills in such memorable films as THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1918) and TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919), but her greatest work with Griffith was in BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), in which she portrayed Lucy,the wharf rat daughter of a cockney fighter. Brutalized at home, she is adored by an Oriental shopkeeper, but when her father discovers this strange relationship he beats the girl to death. Gish's performance allows her to display a variety of emotions, from childish delight to utter panic. Her death scene is particularly discomforting: as her father administers the fatal beating, she cowers in a closet like a caged animal, twisting hysterically to ward off his blows. In her autobiography Gish recalled that, when the sequence was completed, Griffith said, "My God, why didn't you warn me you were going to do that?" She made several more movies with Griffith, most notably WAY -DOWN EAST (1920) and ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1922), before assuming control of her career. At this point, her reputation was such that she was able to wield great power within the industry. She made two films for Inspiration Pictures before signinga five-picture deal with MGM in 1925. Because Gish's star image was intimately linked to her capabilities as a serious actress, MGM placed her in a series of literary adaptations. In LA BOHÈME (1926) she played the consumptive Mimi; in THE SCARLET LETTER (1926) she was the adulterous Hester Prynne. Unfortunately, with her prestigious stature came rising production costs, which cut into the profit margins of her pictures. Gish's best MGM film was THE WIND (1928), a harrowing story of a genteel woman who is brutalized by a stranger in West Texas before shooting him and going mad. It was not only Gish's last great performance in silent pictures, it was also her last successful starring role. By the end of the 20s a new type of modern heroine, exemplified by Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Clara Bow, was in vogue; Gish's appeal was somewhat more nostalgic. She accepted her decline gracefully, directing her attentions towards Broadway, while acting in an occasional film. She achieved screen prominence again with roles on DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) and a television production of Horton Foote's A Trip to Bountiful (1953). Despite advancing age, she remained active, becoming a forceful advocate for film preservation. At the age of 90 she made THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987) with Bette Davis,displaying once more all of the craft that made her one of the most respected performers in the history of motion pictures. Dorothy Gish was born into a broken family where her restless father was frequently absent. Mary, her mother, had entered into acting to make money to support the family. As soon as Dorothy and her sister Lillian were old enough, they became part of the act. To supplement their income, the two sisters also posed for pictures and acted in melodramas of the time. In 1912, they met fellow child actress Mary Pickford, and she got them extra work with Biograph films. Director D. W. Griffith was impressed by both the girls and cast them in 'An Unseen Enemy (1912)', which was their first picture. Dorothy would go on to star in over 100 two reel films and features over the years. In 1914, she would appear in the very successful 'Judith of Bethulia' with Blanche Sweet. She would appear with her sister Lillian in a number of films including two very successful ones named 'Hearts of the World (1918)' and 'Orphans of the Storm (1922)'. In both films, Dorothy would play French girls, but in different periods of time. In 1920 Lillian would try her hand at directing with a movie called 'Remodeling Her Husband', which starred Dorothy and an actor named James Rennie. Dorothy would marry and later divorce Rennie. While Dorothy would excel in pantomime and light comedy, her popularity would always be overshadowed by that of her sister Lillian, who was considered to be one the silent screen's greatest stars. Dorothy would only make a handful of movies in the 20's and in 'Romola (1924)' she would again co-star with Lillian. 'Romola' was one of those costume pictures about Italy in the middle ages, filled with romance and intrigue. By 1926, Dorothy had moved to England where she would star as Nell Gwyn in Nell Gwyn (1926). Her last silent film would be 'Madame Pompadour (1927)'. In 1928, Dorothy would retire from the screen, except for a few occasional roles, and enjoy a long career on the stage.  Lillian Gish died february 27th, 1993, New york City,  New York. Dorothy Gish died June 4th, 1968,  in Rapallo, Italy.