50 Facts About Lillian Gish - The First Lady of American Cinema


Lillian Gish was an American actress, director and writer, who is considered as the greatest actress of the silent era, and as one of the greatest actresses in cinema history. Here are 50 facts about the actress:

  1. Gish was named the First Lady of American Cinema, accrediting her with pioneering fundamental film performing techniques.
  2. Her acting career spanned to a great 75 years period from the year 1912 in silent film shorts to 1987.
  3. She is ranked #17 among the Greatest Female Stars of Classic American Cinema by the American Film Institute.
  4. In 1991, she was listed at #19 in the AFI’s list of “50 Greatest American Female Screen Legends.”
  5. The All Movie Guide wrote of her legacy that she is considered as the movie industry's first true actress, while noting that she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and the screen.
  6. She is the oldest actress ever in the history of American cinema to feature in a leading role, when she co-starred in the movie “The Whales of August,” at the age of 93.
  7. In the year 1971, she was awarded an Honorary Academy Award, for “Superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.”
  8. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1720 Vine Street, Hollywood on February 8, 1960 and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1972.
  9. She was honored with the Women in film Crystal Award in Los Angeles in 1979.
  10. She received the Kennedy Center Honors award in the year 1982.
  11. She was an active member of the America First Committee.
  12. The AFI awarded her an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. She is the second recipient of the award, with the first being Bette Davis.
  13. She has a street named after her in Massillon, Ohio, where she lived during an early period of her life. Throughout her career, she refers to it as her hometown.
  14. Her photo is mentioned as an inspiration for a troubled soldier in the 1933 novel, “Company K.”
  15. One of her costumes from the 1926 movie “The Scarlet Letter,” was at one point housed in The Crocker Museum in Hollywood.
  16. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
  17. Rock band Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album was named after her – “Gish.”
  18. Filmmaker Harry McDevitt got an 8mm copy of her 1913 film “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch,” autographed from her.
  19. New York's Museum of Modern Art showcases at least one of her movies or TV performances every year on her birthday.
  20. Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio, U.S., to James Leigh Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell. Her younger sister Dorothy Gish was also a major movie star of the silent era.
  21. One of her closest friends, Mary Pickford was actually a next-door neighbor to Gish when her family moved to New York initially. It was Pickford who introduced both the sisters to director D. W. Griffith and helped them get their contracts signed with Biograph Studios.
  22. It was reported that Pickford was in constant fear that Gish would drop dead at any moment, remembering her mother's superstitious belief that "the good die young."
  23. Her first stage debut was in the year 1902 at The Little Red School House in Rising Sun, Ohio.
  24. However, it was only after 10 years of stage career, that Gish made her film debut - Griffith's 1912 short film “An Unseen Enemy.” The movie was also the debut movie for her sister Dorothy.
  25. According to the autobiography of Gish, Griffith thought Lillian and Dorothy to be twins and even had to tie different colored hair ribbons on the girls to tell them apart and give them direction like "Red, you hear a strange noise. Run to your sister. Blue, you're scared too. Look toward me, where the camera is."
  26. She had starred in many of Griffith's most acclaimed movies including the highest-grossing film of the silent era, “The Birth of a Nation.”
  27. She was a survivor of the 1918 flu pandemic. She caught the flu during the filming of “Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl.” It was reported that she did not want to make the picture and that director Griffith has to work hard in persuading her to do it. She later admitted that she was glad she consented.
  28. Her association with Griffith was so close that several of their associates were certain that they were at least briefly involved, an issue which she never acknowledged.
  29. Till her death, she held Griffith in such high regard that she always referred to him as “Mr. Griffith.”
  30. For shooting a particular scene in the movie “Way Down East,” in 1920, she was required to lie down on a slab of ice that was floating in a river for several hours, with her right hand immersed in freezing cold water. This has lasting ill effects for Gish and her right hand was somewhat impaired due to the extended filming.
  31. She directed Dorothy in the 1920 movie “Remodeling Her Husband.” That was the first and last movie which she directed and even told the reporters that directing was a man’s job at that time.
  32. Following the premiere of the movie “Orphans of the Storm,” she was invited to the White House by President Warren G. Harding.
  33. She was involved with producer Charles Duell, which became a tabloid scandal after he sued her and made all the details of their relationship public.
  34. In the year 1926, she was offered 1 million dollars for a contract of 6 movies from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She turned down the offer and requested nothing more than a more modest wage and a percentage, so that MGM could use the money to increase the movie quality.
  35. In one of the MGM movies of her career, “La Boheme” in 1926, the leading male character was played by John Gilbert who was infatuated with Gish and would purposely mess up his “love scenes” with her, so that he could keep on kissing her.
  36. In the same movie, she refused to wear a corset designed for her by costume designer Erté, who refused to work within Gish’s demands. This was considered as one of the reasons for Erte not lasting long as a designer in Hollywood.
  37. Director Victor Sjostrom crammed the entire shooting schedule of the 1926 movie “The Scarlet Letter,” to just three days, so that Gish could finish the film early and go to visit her mother who had a stroke.
  38. During the filming of the 1928 movie “The Wind,” the high temperatures made it very difficult for the cast and crew. It was such an intense heat that Gish was burned severely when she touched an outside door handle that a small part of her palm's flesh was scalded off.
  39. She was also involved with drama critic and editor George Jean Nathan who praised her acting, comparing her to Eleonora Duse.
  40. In the 1930s and early 1940s, she focused mostly on stage and appeared in varied roles. It was in 1946 that she returned to movies with “Duel in the Sun,” playing the role of Laura Belle McCanles, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
  41. It was reported that her character Laura Belle McCanles’ illness and death late in the movie “Duel in the Sun,” seemed to evoke the memory of some of her silent film performances.
  42. Following her appearance in “Duel in the Sun,” she was cast in different roles in movies from time to time for the rest of her life and even appeared in number of TV series.
  43. In preparation for her role in the 1960 movie “The Unforgiven,” John Huston and Burt Lancaster took her to a desert to teach her how to shoot. However, Huston and Lancaster were astounded to know that she was more accurate and faster in shooting than them. She learned how to shoot from notorious western outlaw Al J. Jennings.
  44. For the role as Rachel Cooper in the movie “The Night of the Hunter,” director Charles Laughton wanted her to play the part. When she asked why Laughton chose her, he said "When I first went to the movies, they sat in their seats straight and leaned forward. Now they slump down, with their heads back, and eat candy and popcorn. I want them to sit up straight again."
  45. While filming a scene for Woody Allen's 1983 movie “Zelig,” she scolded Gordon Willis, the director of photography on his lighting set-up and started giving step by step instructions on how to re-light the scene. While the entire crew watched aghast, Willis complied with the instructions Gish gave out. However, the scene did not make it into the final version of the movie.
  46. Her last film role was in the movie “The Whales of August” in 1987, for which she received the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress, but missed an Oscar nomination. Some in the industry were angry that Gish was not nominated, for which she commented “Oh, well. At least, I won't have to lose to Cher.”
  47. Her last movie “The Whales of August,” was premiered in the New York City on October 14, 1987, the 94th birthday of Gish.
  48. Her last words of her 75-years of acting career was “Good night,” during her professional appearance as a cameo on the 1988 studio recording of Jerome Kern's “Show Boat.”
  49. At the age of 99, she died of heart failure in her sleep and is interred beside her sister Dorothy at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City.
  50. She left her entire estate, valued at several million dollars, to Helen Hayes, the "First Lady of the American Theatre," who died 18 days after her. Gish was the godmother of Hayes’s son James MacArthur.

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