(Air Date: Week Of 3/3/93)
When Mary Pickford, then Queen of the Biograph lot, first saw Lillian Gish, she observed that the delicate young actress was "not long for this world". Indeed, Miss Gish always looked as if she could be carried away by the mildest breeze. If you compared her to the one-time matinee idol Harold Lockwood during the 1918 influenza epidemic, for example, you would have thought that the hale and hearty Lockwood had a much better chance of survival than the deceptively fragile Miss Gish. But, although both were ravaged during the epidemic, Lillian Gish survived virtually every star of the silent era, while few today remember Lockwood 75 years after his death.
During Miss Gish's long movie career, (1912-1987) she specialised in playing gentle heroines who were tougher than they looked. She ignited a gang war in 1912's "Musketeers Of Pig Alley" and resisted the attentions of brawny gang leader Elmer Booth, who shrugged off his disappointment with such anti-heroic grace that the young James Cagney must surely have taken note and transformed the style into his very own nearly twenty years later. It was perhaps the only time that she was to be upstaged by a fellow player. Miss Gish's decade-long association with D.W. Griffith continued through his two early epics "Birth Of A Nation" and "Intolerance" and she became a life-long defender of Griffith when audiences of later eras attacked her mentor as a racist, as a sentimentalist and as an old-school pioneer unable to adjust to a rapidly-changing industry. But Miss Gish could and did adjust to Hollywood, the town she wryly referred to as an emotional "Detroit".
Under Griffith's direction, she suffered and suffered and suffered in such silent classics as "Broken Blossoms", "Orphans of the Storm" and "Way Down East". After she broke with Griffith, she made several films for M.G.M., including two gems with Victor Seastrom, "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Wind". When the movies began to talk, Miss Gish's film career faltered, although as a stage-trained actress, there was no real reason why her career had to be limited to just twenty films over a sixty-year period. Miss Gish always turned in immaculate, beautifully-crafted performances, and, of course, stole every scene she was in: was that why the giants of the sound era were skittish about working with her? She was philosophical about her exalted, yet often underappreciated, position in a so-called art form that was first andforemost a business.
How many terrorised children who saw "Night Of The Hunter" longed for an angel like Miss Gish to protect them from tormentors, real and imagined? And when her luminous work in "The Whales Of August" was not even recognised with an Oscar nomination, she merely said, "Oh good, now I don't have to lose to Cher". She had already lost to Anne Baxter over forty years earlier, but did receive an honorary Academy Award in 1970 as well as the AFI's Life Achievement Award in 1984. The belated honours were a very small way of acknowledging the foremost and certainly most irreplaceable actress of the silent era.
Copyright 1993 Monica Sullivan
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