Lillian Gish, The Ethereal Star Of Silent Film
“The First Lady of American Cinema” was born on October 14, 1893, in Springfield, Ohio. The daughter of an actress, she got her start in 1912 in silent film shorts. Her father, who was an alcoholic, left his family, and Gish’s mother became an actress to support the family. She also opened the Majestic Candy Kitchen, and Gish and her sister Dorothy sold popcorn and candy to the patrons of the Old Majestic Theater. While she was in school, both she and her sister (who also became an actress) performed in school plays. After the Old Majestic Theater burned down, she moved with her family to New York, where their next-door neighbor was Gladys Smith. The girls both became friends with Smith, who was actually the child actress who had taken the stage name Mary Pickford. Gish joined the theater and was a model, posing for the artist Victor Maurel in exchange for voice lessons.
Pickford introduced Gish and her sister to D.W. Griffith in 1912. At the age of 19 (although she told casting directors she was 16), she had signed a contract with Biograph Studios and was on her way to becoming one of America’s best-loved actresses. Her film debut came in Griffith’s short film, An Unseen Enemy (1912). Up until then, she had only appeared on stage, and stage actors considered films to be a lesser form of entertainment, but Gish didn’t see it that way, and she would, in fact, appear in more than 100 films over the course of her career. To her own detriment, she suffered for her art. In fact, in the climax of Way Down East, she floats on an ice floe towards a waterfall, with her hand trailing in the water, which led to lasting nerve damage in several fingers. She was particularly associated with the films of D.W. Griffiths during her early career, and she held the leading role in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the highest grossing film of the silent era. Griffith also trusted her to direct for him when he took his unit on location, directing her sister in Remodeling Her Husband (1920). After her directorial debut, she did not direct again, and told reporters that directing was a man’s job.