Lillian Gish (1893-1992)

Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish is regarded as one of the finest actresses of any discipline and any era. Her career spanned three quarters of a century, starting in 1912 in silent one reelers and ending in the modern era in 1987. She is called the 'First Lady of American Cinema' and she was also a successful director and writer who pioneered many basic techniques of acting and film making. She helped to make movie acting an artistic medium and her sensitive performances elevated not only her stature as an actress, but also the reputation of movies themselves.

In 1947 she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'Duel in the Sun', and she received an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy in 1971. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Lillian Gish at number nineteen on their list of 50 Greatest American Female Screen Legends.

Despite being better known for her film work, Gish was also an accomplished stage actress, and she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1972.


She was born Lillian Diana Gish on October 14, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. She had a sister, Dorothy, five years younger, who also became a popular movie star. Her father was a travelling salesman and an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Lillian was very young. He died in 1912.

Lillian's mother, Mary, was an actress who used acting as a means of supporting her young family after her husband abandoned them and Lillian had an early introduction to acting life when at the age of nine she appeared with her mother in a touring play called 'In Convict Stripes'. She was eventually replaced by a young actress called called Gladys Mary Smith, shortly to become world famous as Mary Pickford. The girls remained friends and it was Gladys, who would a few years later introduce Lillian to D.W. Griffith and to the world of movie acting.

Mary moved with the girls to East St. Louis, Illinois, to live with her sister's family next door to the Majestic Theater. She opened a candy store next to the theater and Lillian and Dorothy helped to sell to the audience. For several years Lillian attended the convent boarding school Ursuline Academy in East St. Louis.

When the Majestic theater had to close in 1912 due to a fire, the family moved to New York City., where they were introduced by Mary Pickford to director D.W. Griffith, who was immediately taken by both beautiful young actresses and gave them contracts with the Biograph Company, quickly making them a part of the cast and crew which he took to California to produce films in a new location called Hollywood.

Silent Film Actress 1912

Although still only nineteen, Lillian had already spent ten years acting on stage with her mother and sister. Her film debut was with Dorothy in the short 'An Unseen Enemy' and her film education proceeded rapidly with appearances in many other one reelers with titles like 'Two Daughters of Eve', 'The Musketeers of Pig Alley' in 1912, 'Madonna of the Storm' in 1913 and 'The Rebellion of Kitty Belle' in 1914.

The quality of her acting was evident and Griffiths began to cast her in his longer feature films. Some have come to be regarded as classics, such as 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1915, 'Intolerance' the following year and 'Broken Blossoms' in 1919. The films were acclaimed by both the public and critics alike and Lillian quickly rose to national fame.

"The First Lady of American Cinema"

Lillian and Griffiths were a potent combination. They complemented each other in their vision of movie acting as having more potential than the theater for artistic expression, and after more successes in movies such as 'Way Down East' in 1920 and 'Orphans of the Storm' in 1921, the American public took the fragile looking beauty to their hearts and she acquired the nickname "The First Lady of American Cinema".

Her next movie of note was 'The White Sister' in 1923, released by Metro Pictures a few months before it was merged to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The movie was directed by Henry King and was Gish's first film away from the influence of Griffiths and she felt liberated. After a second film with the same company and director, 'Romola' in 1924, she moved away from Griffiths completely and in 1925 joined the ambitious, newly created MGM.

MGM 1925

Lillian signed a contract with MGM in 1926, for six films. She reputedly turned down $1 million in favour of a percentage of the take, which would enable the studio to improve the quality of her films.

Times were changing in moviemaking. Sound films were just round the corner and there was a new generation of actresses beginning to make their name in Hollywood, led by Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Lillian was beginning to look old fashioned but she completed three distinguished films for MGM, 'La Boheme' and 'The Scarlet Letter' in 1926, and 'The Wind' in 1928 and she was respected more than ever as a creative artist. MGM wanted her to continue making pictures in the new medium of sound, but she opted to return to her first love, the stage.

Talkies 1929

Lillian returned to Broadway in 1930 to star in 'Uncle Vanya'. She had another success with 'Camille' in 1932 and, apart from 'His Double Life' in 1933, continued to appear solely on the stage for the rest of the 1930's, ignoring movies completely.

Her next movie appearance, after a nine year gap, was in the war film 'Commandos Strike at Dawn' in 1942, followed by roles in 'Top Man' in 1943 and 'Miss Susie Slagle's' in 1946. Also in 1946 she appeared in the David O. Selznick epic 'Duel in the Sun' with Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten, for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Lillian continued to appear sporadically in movies for the rest of her life. In 1955 she was directed by Charles Laughton in the taut thriller, 'The Night of the Hunter' and in 1960 she appeared alongside John Wayne in 'The Unforgiven'.

Television Career

When the new medium of television first appeared, Lillian was amongst the first Hollywood personalities to embrace it, beginning in 1949 in 'The Ford Theatre Hour' and she went on to make numerous appearances throughout the rest of her career in drama programs such as 'Schlitz Playhouse', 'Kraft Theatre' and 'American Playhouse' and popular series such as 'Breaking Point', 'The Defenders' and 'The Love Boat'. She also appeared in several movies made specifically for television such as 'Arsenic and Old Lace' in 1969, 'Thin Ice' in 1981 and 'Hobson's Choice' in 1983.


Lillian was a very beautiful woman and, although she never married, she had many admirers. It has been claimed that D. W. Griffith and she were romantically involved and she was also involved in the 1920's with drama critic, George Jean Nathan and producer Charles Duell. She had a close friendship with society photographer, Virginia Nell Becker who, for a while from 1932, set up a studio in Gish’s home at East 59th Street to photograph New York society.

Lillian's last movie was with Bette Davis in 'The Whales of August' in 1987 after which she retired.

Lillian Gish died from natural causes on Feb. 27, 1993, aged 99 years. She was interred at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City, beside her sister, Dorothy.

Lillian Gish Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress ... Duel in the Sun (1946)

Lillian Gish Filmography

An Unseen Enemy (Short)
Two Daughters of Eve (Short)
So Near, Yet So Far (Short)
In the Aisles of the Wild (Short)
The One She Loved (Short)
The Painted Lady (Short)(uncredited)
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (Short)
Gold and Glitter (Short)
My Baby (Short)
The Informer (Short)
Brutality (Short)
The New York Hat (Short)
The Burglar's Dilemma (Short)
A Cry for Help (Short)
Oil and Water (Short)
The Unwelcome Guest (Short)
A Misunderstood Boy (Short)
The Left-Handed Man (Short)
The Lady and the Mouse (Short)
The House of Darkness (Short)
Just Gold (Short)
A Timely Interception (Short)
The Mothering Heart (Short)
During the Round-Up (Short)
An Indian's Loyalty (Short)
A Woman in the Ultimate (Short)
A Modest Hero (Short)
So Runs the Way (Short)
Madonna of the Storm (Short)
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (Short)
The Conscience of Hassan Bey (Short)
The Green-Eyed Devil
Judith of Bethulia
The Hunchback (Short)
The Battle of the Sexes
The Quicksands (Short)
Home, Sweet Home
The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (Short)
Lord Chumley (Short)
The Angel of Contention (Short)
Man's Enemy (Short)
The Tear That Burned (Short)
The Folly of Anne (Short)
The Sisters (Short)
A Duel for Love (Short)
His Lesson (Short)
The Birth of a Nation
The Lost House (Short)
Enoch Arden (Short)
Captain Macklin (Short)
The Lily and the Rose
Pathways of Life
Daphne and the Pirate
Sold for Marriage
An Innocent Magdalene
Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages
Diane of the Follies
The Children Pay
The House Built Upon Sand
Souls Triumphant
Hearts of the World
The Great Love
The Greatest Thing in Life
A Romance of Happy Valley
Broken Blossoms
True Heart Susie
The Greatest Question
Way Down East
Orphans of the Storm
The White Sister
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ(uncredited)
La Bohème
The Scarlet Letter
Annie Laurie
The Enemy
The Wind
One Romantic Night
His Double Life