Silents are Golden: The Iconic Careers of Lillian and Dorothy Gish
“I remember one day in the early summer going through the gloomy old hall of the Biograph Studio when suddenly all gloom seemed to disappear. This change in atmosphere was caused by the presence of two young girls sitting side by side on a hall bench. They were blondish and were sitting affectionately close together…They were Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Lillian had an exquisite ethereal beauty…As for Dorothy, she was just as pretty a picture in another manner; pert–saucy–the old mischief seemed to pop right out of her…”
This was D.W. Griffith’s first memory of meeting the teenaged Lillian and Dorothy Gish. At the time they were stage actresses simply looking to break into the steady work of filmmaking. But they would soon do much more than light up an old studio hall–arguably, they would light up the art of cinema acting itself.
Lillian was born in 1893 in Ohio, and Dorothy in 1898. Their father James, a traveling salesman, became an alcoholic and abandoned the family when the girls were young. Their loving, patient mother Mary worked hard to support her daughters, finding odd jobs and opening a short-lived candy store. A friend suggested that she try acting to get some extra income; this foray also led to her daughters appearing on the stage, usually playing “innocent child” types in various melodramas (Dorothy, for instance, played “Little Willie” in the old tearjerker East Lynne).
By the time they were teens the Gish sisters had appeared with several touring companies. Thoughtful, purpose-driven Lillian was finding a niche in dramatic roles, while bubbly, mischievous Dorothy was a natural fit for comedy. They were extremely close to their mother, as they would remain throughout their lives. In a sense, the little family’s love for each other was a dependable refuge from the tough, fickle world of show business.
While appearing on stage in New York the Gishes became friends with actress Gladys Smith, known today as Mary Pickford. They later recalled she was “like a little mother” to them. In 1912 she recommended that they look for work in pictures, much to their surprise. She explained that it was steady work and paid well, so why not call on her director, D.W. Griffith, and see if he would take them on?
Thus Lillian and Dorothy made their screen debut in the one-reel thriller An Unseen Enemy (1912), playing sisters threatened by a housekeeper who’s trying to get her hands on their late father’s money. These were the first of dozens of roles in Biograph shorts. Griffith’s first wife Linda Arvidson later recalled: “Lillian and Dorothy just melted right into the studio atmosphere without causing a ripple.”
Griffith grew very impressed by the Gish sisters’ talents, especially the ethereal Lillian’s, and carefully helped them develop their skills. In time they would appear in his most prestigious productions, such as World War I propaganda feature Hearts of the World (1918) and the French Revolution thriller Orphans of the Storm (1921). Dorothy, now an established comedienne, had leads in numerous light comedies like I’ll Get Him Yet (1919) and Remodelling Her Husband (1919) (the latter being the one film directed by Lillian), while tragedienne Lillian kept busy in epics like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and dramas like Broken Blossoms (1919). They were also eyewitnesses to the rapid development of cinema at the time, learning what makeup to wear with the harsh studio lighting, getting to see how the film was developed and edited in Biograph’s laboratory, and watching directors try out new techniques.
While Lillian is better known today, both of the angelic-looking Gishs were popular with the public and they were also much-lauded by critics. Lillian was considered one of the screen’s greatest dramatic actresses, and lively Dorothy helped pave the way for the bubbly flapper films of the Roaring Twenties. The two were very much the personifications of “tragedy” and “comedy” in the cinema, influencing countless other performers. They would comment on each other affectionately in the press, Lillian talking about Dorothy’s buoyant attitude toward life – ”When she goes to a party, the party becomes a party” – and Dorothy discussing Lillian’s remarkable dedication to her work: “Her eyes are fixed on her goal; her ears are attuned only to the voice of her duty.”
In their private lives, Dorothy was very much a girl who enjoyed a night on the town (usually alongside her close friend Constance Talmadge), while Lillian had a singular devotion to her work. Dorothy would marry fellow actor James Rennie in 1920 (they would divorce in 1935), while Lillian remained single, tirelessly devoted to acting. She would later say, “…From the age of nine, I was always falling in and out of love. But marriage is a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, and I have always been much too busy to make a good wife.”
During the 1920s Dorothy made fewer albeit charming pictures, her last major silent role being in Madame Pompadour (1927). She would eventually return to the stage and enjoyed a long and thriving career there, making occasional appearances in films or on television. Playwright Emmet Lavery once said: “In the theatre, we always need the extra bit of magic–Dorothy had it.” Two of the most popular plays she appeared in were 1939’s Life With Father and 1946’s The Magnificent Yankee.
Lillian would make the move to the prestigious MGM studio in the mid-1920s, where she gave much-admired performances in dramas like The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). The end of the silent era didn’t slow her down–she would work tirelessly in both film, theater, and television almost up to the end of her life. She had remarkable energy and discipline, even in later years. In 1967, while working on The Comedians in Dahomey (present-day Benin), she worked long hours without complaint in triple-digit heat. Actor Peter Glenville recalled: “Lillian arrived at my villa later, looking fresh and radiant in a charming evening dress suitable to the climate, and we dined together. We discussed the theatre, African politics, and the religious aspects of Graham Greene’s literary work. At 11:30 she retired, saying that she was looking forward to meeting everyone on the set the next day–at 6:30 a.m.” Not for nothing would she be called the “First Lady of the Cinema.”
In 1968 Dorothy succumbed to bronchial pneumonia, with Lillian at her bedside. She was 70 years old. Lillian would live for almost three more decades, dying of heart failure in her sleep at age 99. Her last film had been The Whales of August (1987). Both sisters are interred side by side at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City, eternally as close as they always were in life.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.