In 1920, Lillian Gish both delivered a landmark performance in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East and directed her sister Dorothy in Remodelling Her Husband. This was her sole director credit in a career as a screen actor that began with An Unseen Enemy in 1912 and ended with The Whales of August in 1987. Personal correspondence examined by biographer Charles Affron shows that Gish lobbied Griffith for the opportunity to direct and approached the task with enthusiasm. In 1920, in Motion Picture Magazine, however, Gish offered the following assessment of her experience: “There are people born to rule and there are people born to be subservient. I am of the latter order. I just love to be subservient, to be told what to do” (102). One might imagine that she discovered a merely personal kink. In a Photoplay interview that same year, however, she extended her opinion to encompass all women and in doing so slighted Lois Weber, one of Hollywood’s most productive directors. “I am not strong enough” to direct, Gish told Photoplay, “I doubt if any woman is. I understand now why Lois Weber was always ill after a picture” (29). What should historical criticism do with such evidence?
Lillian (left) and Dorothy Gish. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
By far the most common approach has been to argue that Gish did not really mean what the press quotes her as saying. Alley Acker, for instance, urges us not to be fooled by Gish’s “Victorian modesty” and goes on to provide evidence of her authority on the set (62). Similarly, Affron argues that Gish’s assertions of subservience were partly self-serving. Self-effacement contributed to her star persona as “D.W. Griffith’s virginal, ethereal muse” (15). Gish cultivated this image throughout her career, and Affron finds it exemplified by the oft-repeated story of her masochistic performance in Way Down East’s 1920 ice floe rescue. A different Gish surfaces in an interview with Anthony Slide first published in 1970. There we encounter a decisive and resourceful woman who surmounted extraordinary practical difficulties in directing Remodelling Her Husband. In addition to directing, Griffith gave her the job of supervising completion of a new studio in Mamaroneck, New York. Neither subservience nor modesty inflect Gish’s assessment of the results: “We finished at 58 thousand dollars, and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many films do today” (Slide 1977, 124). Gish also told Slide that she had wanted to make an “all-woman picture” and had recruited Dorothy Parker to write the titles. In the film, Dorothy Gish portrays a young wife who reforms her philandering husband by leaving him to work in her father’s business. Unfortunately, neither Affron nor Slide has been able to confirm Parker’s role, and no print is known to survive.
Lillian Gish portrait, 1922. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
When the biographical approach emphasizes the difference between Gish’s public persona and her private ambition, it invites us to see her demurral as a clever tactic. By identifying with “the weaker sex” she turns a low expectation of women to her own advantage. That Gish left behind such a large volume of paper makes this hypothesis extremely tempting. Not only have there been numerous published accounts of her life, but her papers, available through the New York Public Library, include personal correspondence, business documents, and scrapbooks spanning the years 1909-1992. In addition, her correspondence with Slide is available through the Margaret Herrick Library. These sorts of sources urge us to seek a more complicated woman behind the public star persona.
A different source might shift focus to the terms of public discourse and allow us to ask if these terms were as conventionally fixed as the search for the private woman can make it appear. For instance, the Paramount-Famous Players press book (which suggested stories for exhibitors to plant in local papers) provides not one but two different ways to promote Remodelling Her Husband, the famous actress’s directorial debut. The first approach resembles the above-quoted Photoplay and Moving Picture Magazine articles, emphasizing Lillian’s “delicate physique” and her decision to abandon directing as too rigorous an endeavor. The second strategy, however, foregrounds her “prowess” and presents Dorothy as cajoling Lillian into the director’s chair. The studio publicity department thus promoted directing as something women might encourage their sisters to do while at the same time presenting women directors as an aberration in a profession that required masculine strength and discipline. How this apparently contradictory message played itself out in the trade press and the nation’s newspapers wants further explanation.
Lillian Gish in New York, 1922. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
One could also take Gish’s remarks literally. After all, she advocates what would become the normative division of labor—women act, men direct—at a time when it was not clear that these work rules would, in fact, prevail. Similarly, while her praise of Griffith’s genius helped to ensure that her own contributions would be central to the story of American motion pictures, such veneration also promoted a particular version of historical events. By all accounts, Gish relished the role of spokesperson for silent film, and perhaps more work should consider her role as historian, critic, and theorist. Certainly Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz aim to encourage such consideration by including Gish’s Encyclopedia Britannica article, “A Universal Language,” in their collection of women’s writing about the first fifty years of cinema. Echoes of Gish’s argument in that piece may be found in her less-known 1930 essay, “In Defense of the Silent Film.” With its conclusion that “Until the cinema returns from its prodigal excursion into sound it cannot expect to resume its logical development as an independent art” (230), the essay invites comparison with classic laments about the transition to sound from such filmmakers and film theorists as Bela Balazs, Rudolf Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Alexandrov. In the essay, Gish writes with authority from her experience as an actor and names a wide range of directors she considers important—all of them men.
Lillian Gish with megaphone. Private Collection.
Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 1991.
Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. New York: Scribner 2001.
------. “A Universal Language.” Rpt. in Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema. Eds. Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz. London and New York: Verso, 2006. 200-202. [Originally published in The Theater and Motion Pictures: A Selections of Articles from the New 14th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. New York and London: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1929-33, 33-34.]
Gish, Lillian. “In Defense of the Silent Film.” Revolt of the Arts. Ed. Oliver M. Sayler. New York: Bretano’s, 1930. 225–30.
Gish, Lillian and Ann Pinchot. Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
My Baby. Dir.: Frank Powell (Biograph US 1912) cas.: Mary Pickford, Henry Walthall, Eldean Stewart, W. Chrystie Miller, Lillian Gish, Alfred Paget, Madge Kirby, John T. Dillon, Walter Miller, Jack Pickford, Dorothy Gish, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: George Eastman Museum [USR], Library of Congress [USW].
The Left-Handed Man. Dir.: D.W. Griffith (Biograph US 1913) cas.: Lillian Gish, Harry Carey, Charles West, si, b&w. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM].
A Misunderstood Boy. Dir.: D.W. Griffith (Biograph US 1913) cas.: Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Kate Bruce, Robert Harron, Charles Hill Mailes, Alfred Paget, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: UCLA Film and Television Archive [USL].
So Runs the Way. Dir.: W. Christy Cabanne (Biograph US 1913) cas.: Reggie Morris, W.C. Robinson, Kate Toncray, Joseph McDermott, Lillian Gish, si, b&w. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM].
The Stolen Bride. Dir.: Tony O’Sullivan (Biograph US 1913) cas.: Harry Carey, Claire McDowell, Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, si, b&w. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM].
A Timely Interception. Dir.: D.W. Griffith (Biograph US 1913) cas.: Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, W. Chrystie Miller, William J. Butler, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Joseph McDermott, Walter Miller, Alfred Paget, si, b&w. Archive: Museum of Modern Art [USM], Academy Film Archive [USF].
The Battle of the Sexes. Dir.: D.W. Griffith, sc. Daniel Carson Goodman (Majestic Motion Picture Co. US 1914) cas.: Donald Crisp, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Mary Alden, Owen Moore, Fay Tincher, W.E. Lawrence, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: George Eastman Museum [USR].
The Lily and the Rose. Prod.: D.W. Griffith, dir.: Paul Powell, st.: Granville Warwick, adp.: Paul Powell (Fine Arts Film Co. US 1915) cas.: Lillian Gish, Wilfred Alden, Wilfred Lucas, Rozsika Dolly, Loyola O’Connor, Cora Drew, Elmer Clifton, Mary Alden, William Hinckley, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Children Pay. Dir.: Lloyd Ingraham, sc.: Frank E. Woods (Fine Arts Film Co. US 1916) cas.: Lillian Gish, Violet Wilkie, Keith Armour, si, b&w, 5 reels. Archive: Danske Filminstitut [DKK].
A House Built Upon Sand. Dir. Edward Morrissey, sc.: Mary H. O’Connor (Fine Arts Film Co. US 1916) cas.: Lillian Gish, Roy Stewart, William H. Brown, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Greatest Thing in Life. Dir.: D.W. Griffith, sc./st.: Captain Victor Marier (D.W. Griffith/Artcraft US 1918) cas.: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Adolphe Lestina, si, b&w. Archive: BFI National Archive [GBB].
The Enemy. Dir.: Fred Niblo, sc.: Agnes Christine Johnston, Willis Goldbeck (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer US 1928) cas.: Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Ralph Emerson, si, b&w, 35mm. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
B. Filmography: Non-Extant Film Titles:
1. Lillian Gish as Actress
Gold and Glitter, 1912; During the Round Up, 1913; An Indian's Loyalty, 1913; The Angel of Contention, 1914; The Folly of Anne, 1914; The Green-Eyed Devil, 1914; The Hunchback, 1914; The Quicksands, 1914; The Rebellion of Kitty Belle, 1914; The Tear That Burned, 1914; The Lost House, 1915; Daphne and the Pirate, 1916; Diane of the Follies, 1916; An Innocent Magdalene, 1916; Pathways of Life, 1916; Souls Triumphant, 1917; The Great Love, 1918; “Liberty Bond Short,” 1918.
2. Lillian Gish as Director and Screenwriter
Remodelling Her Husband, 1920.
C. DVD Sources:
Griffith Masterworks: Biograph Shorts (1908-1914). DVD. (Kino Video US 2002)
D.W. GriffithYears of Discovery, 1909-1913. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2002)
D. W. Griffith Monumental Epics. DVD. (Eureka Entertainment UK 2002)
The Actors: Rare Films of Lillian Gish, vol. 1 & 2. DVD. (Classic Video Streams US 2002)
Judith of Bethulia. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2012)
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch. DVD. (VCI Entertainment US 2003)- on The Great Train Robbery 100th Anniversary Special Edition
Griffith Masterworks: The Birth of a Nation. DVD. (Kino Video US 2002)
The Birth of aNation. DVD. (Kino Lorber US 2011)
The Birth of a Nation. DVD. (Eureka Entertainment US 2013)
Sold for Marriage. DVD. (Grapevine US 2005)
Intolerance. DVD. (Kino US 2002)
Intolerance. DVD. (Delta Entertainment US 2004)
Hearts of the World. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2014)
Broken Blossoms. DVD. (Kino Video US 2002)
Broken Blossoms. DVD. (Kino International US 2001)
Broken Blossoms. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2005)
True Heart Susie. DVD. (Flicker Alley US 2015)
True Heart Susie. DVD. (Grapevine US 2005)
The Greatest Question. DVD. (Kino International US 2008)
Way Down East. DVD. (Kino International US 2008)
Way Down East. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2004)
Orphans of the Storm. DVD. (Kino US 2002)
Orphans of the Storm. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2003)
Orphans of the Storm. DVD. (Delta Entertainment US 2004)
The White Sister. DVD. (Warner Archive Collection US 2011)
The White Sister. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2006)
Romola. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2015)
La Bohème. DVD. (Warner Archive Collection US 2010)
The Wind. DVD. (Bach Films France 2013)
A Romance of Happy Valley. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2015)
Lillian Gish’s filmography was primarily culled from Charles Affron’s chronological record in Lillian Gish, the FIAF International database, the American Film Index (AFI), the Film International Index (FII), Paul Spehr, and the Braff papers on short films in silent cinema. That said, there are still some inconsistencies in Lillian Gish’s filmography. Many of her short films from the 1910s can’t be confirmed in the AFI index, which focuses on features and often omits shorts. Format and reel counts have occasionally been omitted when the data was inconsistent as different archives have different material. As with many films released at the end of the year, dates are inconsistent in different sources. For instance, The Enemy is listed as both 1927 and 1928. Its New York opening was December 1927, while its general release opening was February 1928. The copy at the MGM archives is incomplete. Lillian Gish’s filmography is also unique because of the unusually large number of writers who used a nom de plume on her films, including Granville Warwick (D. W. Griffith), Captain Victor Marier (Griffith with S. E. V. Taylor), and Dorothy Elizabeth Carter (the Gish sisters who cowrote Remodelling Her Husband). Finally, on the FIAF database a film titled The All Star Family in Distress: A Film Cutter’s Nightmare with Gish, Chaplin, and Gloria Swanson is listed as being held in the UCLA archives. However, the nature of the material can’t be confirmed and it is not certain that Lillian Gish even appears in the footage. Several online sources list Pathways of Life as extant and held in the UCLA Archives. FIAF Treasures (which also says the film is held in the Academy Film Archives) and the UCLA online catalogue list the year of the film held as 1914. With no other information listed, more research needs to be done to see whether or not this is Gish's Pathways of Life.
Cooper, Mark Garrett. "Lillian Gish." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-9vgd-hd51>