She holds the title for having the longest career in movies. She started in 1912 and made her last film 75 years later in 1987. Lillian Gish is truly the First Lady Of Film.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers back again to salute the woman who may not have won an Oscar, but gives new meaning to the word perseverance (and while we’re at it, sheer style).
Lillian was 19 when she made her first film, and only 22 when she starred for D. W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation. She was rumored through the years to have been romantically involved with the famous director, but she never acknowledged it. For years she stayed with him, appearing in his second classic silent, Intolerance in 1916.
Broken Blossoms, an interracial love story shocked audiences in 1919 and the following year in Way Down East, she floated on an iceberg with her hair trailing in the frigid water. And there was no double for her. It was all Lillian Gish.
She was one of the biggest stars of the silents, right up there with Pickford and Chaplin. But then the talkies. Lillian’s debut film One Romantic Night wasn’t a hit. It was the second screen version of Ferenc Molnar’s play, The Swan. (The play would again be made as 1956’s The Swan pairing Grace Kelly with Louis Jourdan.)
Gish left for New York and the stage where she succeeded admirably through the 1930s, even playing Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet.
In the early 40s she returned to Hollywood, at first to programmers, but then David O. Selznick resurrected her film career by casting her in 1946’s Duel in the Sun. (She’d been considered for two roles in Gone With the Wind, but hadn’t gotten either)
But with Duel in the Sun she returned to her proper place in films and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Two years later she was in another Selznick production, A Portrait of Jennie.
And who can easily forget her compelling performance in Charles Laughton’s horror masterpiece — his sole outing as a director — 1955’s Night of the Hunter? (The film is so scary that Frank is still nervous about watching it.) As the wise matron who protects two vulnerable children from a menacing, psychotic religious fanatic (Robert Mitchum’s best role?), Gish is as steely and determined as she is sensitive.
Miss Gish, as she was reverently known, then turned to live television and to Broadway. Her last film in 1987 was The Whales of August, which co-starred Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern. Many people thought she’d receive another Oscar nomination. She didn’t. (Sothern did garner one for Best Supporting Actress.)
Lillian Gish died in 1993 at the age of 99. Her sister Dorothy (also an actress of some note) had predeceased her so Lillian left her estate to her good friend Helen Hayes, who unfortunately died just one month later. Gish’s estate was used to provide scholarships.
Although most people remember her as a quiet, discerning older woman her personal life was not without scandal. Back in the 1920s she’d been involved with critic George Jean Nathan and producer George Duell. At one point Duell sued Gish and made the details of their affair open to the tabloids.
Still for 75 years Lillian Gish represented Hollywood of the Silent Era making a distinguished transition to the Golden Era.
(Final note: in the 1970’s in New York, Frank actually met and chatted with the then 70-something Gish. He cannot remember what was discussed but vividly recalls his impression that he was in the presence of a truly feminine — and yes, attractive — woman.)