Lillian Gish was one of cinema’s first female stars. Her innocent beauty on screen matched with her hard-working attitude and business sense made for career that spanned over seven decades. Louise Black takes a closer look at this vintage style icon.

Think of the Twenties and you’ll surely envisage naughty flappers with Marcel waves, painted faces and bare ankles, dancing the Charleston like Josephine Baker to raucous jazz music with a cigarette in one hand and a Whiskey Sour in the other. But much of this razzle dazzle was a reaction against a more conservative establishment that prized temperance, sexual abstinence and purity, particularly in women.

Appearing in her first film (An Unseen Enemy in 1912) at the age of 19, Lillian Gish was one of the first generation of screen goddesses, providing an important link to fading Victorian values for the cinema-going masses  who might otherwise have found later stars like Joan Crawford, Clara Bow and their glittering ilk too radically modern. With wide blue eyes, rosebud lips and a flowing mane of curls, Gish’s appearance on the silent screen epitomised an ethereal, vulnerable, natural beauty that represented traditional female purity and integrity in the face of a modern, changing world.

For the first 13 years of her career Gish worked with pioneering director DW Griffith who repeatedly cast her as the suffering heroine, often seen fending off advances from lascivious brutes, escaping abusive relations and rescuing the innocent waifs from certain ruin. With Griffith at the helm, Gish became one of the best-loved faces on the silent screen, while behind the scenes she was a successful, independent career woman who had worked hard since childhood and remained unmarried until her death in 1993 at the age of 99.

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This double image of Gish helped to adjust audiences to the notion of a working woman, and while her popularity fell away throughout the Twenties and she was replaced by increasingly sophisticated, sassy female leads, her importance in paving the way for such artists should not be forgotten. A hugely talented actress, when Gish’s cinematic appeal waned she turned to the stage, perhaps most notably appearing as Ophelia in a 1936 production of Hamlet.

Gish’s career was not, however, without controversy. Griffith’s seminal 1915 epic Birth of a Nation, in which Gish stars, continues to be criticised for its overtly racist content and apparent glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the Thirties Gish herself was an outspoken critic of American intervention in the Second World War right up until the attack on Pearl Harbour in1941.

In spite of this, Gish’s all-American image endured and she never entirely retired from the screen. In 1946 she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the Western Duel in the Sun. Her love affair with performing continued throughout her lifetime and her final appearance on the big screen was alongside Bette Davis in The Whales of August in 1987.

In 1999 the American Film Institute named her 17th in their list of the 25 greatest female stars of all time, and she had the longest career of all the stars listed – male or female.

6 Responses

  1. Lya de Putti

    Aw, lovely Lillian – we are featuring one of Lillian’s own recipes in our forthcoming cookbook Silver Screen Suppers – if anyone fancies test cooking it for us (you’ll receive an acknowledgement in the book please get in touch via http://www.silverscreensuppers.com – Lillian Gish’s Lemon Pie – yum yum x

    Reply
  2. mary young

    When I was a sweet young thing in NYC (early 1960’s) I interviewed at a large well known advertising agency.
    Lillian Gish was the receptionisht. And I remember how she would atriculate every word and sat there like
    a queen. Very elegant lady. I am only sorry she didn’t live to be 100. No I didn’t get the job but my brother
    went on the be a very important person in the agency for years.

    Reply

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