The history of the great talent Lillian Gish is immeasurable. She has acted in more productions per decade then anyone else in this century. She has been in one hundred and five films alone, that’s not counting all the on stage productions she has performed in. The amazing talents of this once beautiful young actress can be seen in any of her early silent films too. Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm are two of her earlier films that portray her exquisite skills. Yet none of this would be know if it wasn’t for a mastermind of directing, D.W. Griffith. Gish would have lived a long unrecognized life of theatre and missed out on the most important part of her career, the silent film.
Gish first started acting in the very early years of this century, 1902 to be exact, in a small stage named The Little Red School House. Her great film debut did not come until much later in 1912 when the great Griffith noticed her in a filming studio. He described her as the most beautiful thing, and said it appeared as if the light in the room was emanating from her and her alone, almost as if she was glowing. From there Griffith picked her up and started her on her great future in film. Gish said she would only act for him if he signed her sister Dorothy as well. Of course not to miss out on this beautiful young actress Griffith signed both. The two sisters had their first major film debut was in 1912 with the film An Unseen Enemy. This got Lillian off to a much better start then Dorothy I suppose, because from there she acted in 104 more plays until her death in 1993. She acted in her last film in 1987 completing her great career.
Many people consider Gish the most important actress in history. This is mostly because of her command in the film. She is said to have laid down the ground rules for movie acting (entertainment magazine). Gish with help from Griffith is even said to have invented the close-up. This is a very great accomplishment for a woman in the early days of film. Another aspect that Entertainment Magazine said about her was that the heroines she portrayed, especially with Griffith, were fluttery, waiflike creatures assaulted by cruelties straight out of Dickens. Gish’s personality also has a lot to do with her success in film. She had a strong, rich voice that could be remembered and yet she was sensible and very gracious. People used to say she was as fragile as a steel rod. Gish even coined her own statement about herself. “I’ve never been in style, so I can’t go out of style.” A sensible term for a sensible woman.
Once Gish got into the swing of things with her silent film stardom the era of silent films was coming to an end. Gish had a decision to make. She could go into sound productions or on to the stage. Gish was a bit hesitant at first of sound so she went into stage performances; she was after all a superior stage actress. Eventually Gish started her roles in sound films or “talkies” her first was One Romantic Night in 1930. This was now under her new signing, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM studios in modern times. The films she did under MGM will never live up to the greatness her earlier films do under the reign of Griffith.
The two movies I watched with Gish were Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. Two great silent films in which I could barley turn away for a second. Not only cause I would miss an important silent line, but because there was an essence to her great acting.
Way Down East was a romance. The film plotted Gish as a poor country girl tricked in to getting married in a fake wedding. Thus becoming pregnant by her fake husband, a rich man doing it for his own greedy pleasures. Gish now with a sick baby and nowhere to live is in a boarding house. Once her baby dies she is sent out on her own. She finds a nice family to take her in but is eventually found out that she had a baby and no husband, sin. She is kicked out, but not before exposing her troubled past and the man that tricked her. The movie ends very satisfying with a wedding, showing Gish being married to a nice man that took care of her throughout the end of the movie. Way Down East is said to be a melodrama to suggest the tragedy and dread of a patriarchy. The film was one of her best performances, and the ice flow scene at the end is said to be one of the greatest action scenes in film history.
Orphans of the Storm is the other film I watched with the great actress Lillian Gish. This silent film was a little bit different from the last. This film took place in Paris during the French Revolution. Lillian and Dorothy were both in this film. Gish has to bring her sister to France to get a cure for blindness but when they get to Paris the two become separated. Lillian triumphs the odds and the two are together again at the end of the film, just after being saved from the guillotine. This film was equally as artistic and unequivocal as Way Down East. I cant say which film I thought was better but the action in Orphans of the Storm is something else.
All and all Lillian Gish was great film star. She started acting at a very early age and made film at the age of nineteen. Griffith led her in the right direction with the close up and helped her become the great talent she was. Gish in her later years was granted an honorary Doctorate of Performing Arts, from Bowling Green University. Gish also received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her great talents. With the talent of Lillian Gish now in the past we now can only reminisce. The once great silent film actress, Lillian Gish