Lilian Gish

The First Lady of American Cinema

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Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford had known each other from childhood. While Mary Pickford is often referred to as the Queen of Hollywood and Hollywood royalty, Lilian Gish is known as “The First Lady of American Cinema”.



Lilian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1893 and has a younger sister, Dorothy, who would also go on to become a famous movie star. Their father was an alcoholic and left the family – so their mother supported them bay acting and opening up “The Majestic Candy Kitchen” which served the theatre audiences. The two sisters helped sell candy and popcorn to them regularly and acted on stage in the theatre. When Lilian was 17, she was informed that her father was gravely ill and she travelled to meet and reconcile with him. 

When the theatre that had sustained the little family burnt down, the three relocated to New York, moving in next door to Gladys Smith – who we now know would become Mary Pickford. The girls became friends and Smith eventually introduced the Gish sister to D.W. Griffith and they both got contracts with Biograph. Lilian was already 19 years of age and had acted on the stage for 10 years at that time. 


What was so special about Lilian Gish? It was her way of acting. She suffered for her art and made it seem so real that it was frightening. When her character was floating on an ice floe in the movie “Way Down East”, her hand and hair is in the icy water. Her body actually got damaged by her extreme ways of acting. The floating scene caused her lasting nerve damage in several fingers. And before filming a death scene she did not eat or drink for days – making others fear for her life. She was extremely expressive and was moulded by Griffith into a suffering yet strong heroine. She became one of the best regarded actresses of the new medium. 

AllMovie Guide writes: Lillian Gish is considered the movie industry’s first true actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact. While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waiflike frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength. More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remain the standard against which those of all other actors are measured.


Although she had great success with D.W. at Biography, Gish took up an offer from MGM, which payed more and offered her more creative control – something that she might have picked up from her friend Mary Pickford. She even requested less money, but asked for better productions of her movies. One of the movies at MGM, which Lilian Gish basically had complete control over was “the Wind” from 1928. It was Gish’s favourite movie and is now thought to be one of the most distinguished worlds of the silent movie period.

And then, as with Pickford, the talkies came and changed everything. MGM pressed Gish into starting in the new medium. As with Pickford, it was not the voice that was a problem, but the roles. The wholesome roles that Pickford and Gish had played were not in demand anymore, but vamps were all the rage – Theda Bara and Pola Negri taking centre stage. 

So, Lilian Gish got back to theatre acting and only occasionally acted in movies. She actually was a possibility for Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind, but that role eventually went to Ona Munson. But she did do notable Television work and from the 1950s to 1970s, she appeared in numerous shows. Her last film role was in 1987 at the age of 93 for The Whales of August together with Vincent Price (the one who signed his autographs Dolores del Rio) and Bette Davis. She got standing ovations in Cannes for her performance and a National Board of Review Award for Best Actress. Not receiving a nomination for the Oscars, she just commented: Well, now I won’t have to go and lose to Cher” (who won for Moonstruck).

Her last words as an actress were “Good Night” in a studio recording of “Show Boat” the following year. How fitting. 

Personal Life

Unlike many of her peers, Lilian never married or had children. Also, she did not have many high-profile affairs. She was thought to have had an affair with D.W. Griffith, but this has never been confirmed by either her or Griffith. Her affair with Charles Duell was different though. The producer sued her and made the details of their relationship public – that made a big tabloid scandal. 

Gish was an avid vegetarian from early childhood on because she could not bear the thought to eat animals. She actually is the start of the carrot eating when it comes to diets. Because she was caught nibbling on a carrot in federal court and the tabloids spread the news. So, being a movie star and eating carrots probably has been linked from that early point onwards. 

Other than that, Lilian Gish was a really wholesome person, who died of heart failure at the ripe age of 99 in 1993.

With all my love!




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