Four Times Truer than Life: Four Thoughts on Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish

1. “I know that in later years Mr. Griffith himself was prone to exaggerations that were a press agent’s dream…It seems to me, however, that the truth is a much finer tribute to Mr. Griffith’s skills.”Lillian Gish on the making of The Birth of a Nation, in The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me

Reading the memoirs of an actress can be frustrating for a film lover. The material on the life–the husbands, the lovers, the wardrobe, the awards, the contracts, the kids–is often far more abundant than the nuts-and-bolts of what they did on set. That’s one reason to cherish Lillian Gish’s autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, one of the most honest titles in the history of this frequently dishonest book category.  If you pick it up hoping for some sort of insight into whether or not Gish ever had any love affairs at all, let alone with whom, well, good luck with that. The book is about the work, and not much else. If you had never seen a single Lillian Gish film (and when I picked it up years ago, I knew only The Birth of a Nation, which I found, shall we say, problematic) you would know she was a pure actress and a great talent just from the vivid, focused way she writes about moviemaking.

2. “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”King Vidor, in his autobiography A Tree Is a Tree

Lillian gish La Boheme

Some great actresses are a dream to work with, and others a nightmare. Still others are a little of both. Gish was not the sort ever to cause trouble by being late or unprepared or overtly temperamental. You can deduce that she wasn’t all velvet, either. Vidor directed Gish in La Boheme, and writes of her insistence on extensive rehearsals, and her preparation that extended to starving herself for three days before her death scene. He also writes that she had a firm concept of what this bohemian love story should entail, to wit: no physical contact between her and John Gilbert, then the screen’s pre-eminent male heartthrob. Vidor wasn’t sold on the idea, but Gish proceeded to have her way anyway, by the simple expedient of refusing to do it any other way. Artistically, she had a point, as Vidor acknowledges, although he delicately implies that it may well not have been the best idea for the picture. As a practical matter, when MGM head Louis B. Mayer saw the rushes, and realized this tale of garret passion hadn’t a single actual kiss, he blew his stack. Back to the soundstage to film some real love scenes.

3. “Richard Schikel…thought The Wind verged ‘on the ludicrous’ and continued by saying that Gish failed the ‘basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy.’ Whereupon, Louise Brooks rolled over in her gin-soaked grave.”Dan Callahan, “Blossom in the Dust,” Bright Lights Film Journal

Lillian Gish The Wind

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that Gish isn’t sexy, considering that she spent her entire silent career playing women (and, in Broken Blossoms, a child) who are desired by men, and often wind up seduced and abandoned. It’s no harder to get past Gish’s thin lips and flowing hair to her beauty, than it is to overlook Garbo’s eyebrows or Clara Bow’s oddly drawn mouth.  Do those who find Gish a “silly, sexless antique” (Louise Brooks’ sarcastic phrasing of such criticisms) wonder what the male characters are after? Nowadays, are innocence and purity so despised, or so transient, that no trace of their appeal remains? Surely not. Perhaps in our day, those qualities are so firmly relegated to childhood that modern audiences aren’t comfortable with an erotic attraction to innocence–or, in The Wind, with how a young virgin’s terror of sex can coexist with an equally primal yearning for it.

4. “During the filming [of The Mothering Heart] I worried that I was overplaying, But when I looked at the rushes during a lunch break, I asked Mr. Griffith why none of it showed on the screen. He explained: ‘The camera opens and shuts, and opens and shuts with equal time–so half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did–therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normally to come over with full effect to your audience.’ “ –Gish, ibid.

In the two early Griffith shorts available on Fandor, The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch and The Mothering Heart, Gish plays to another strength–the ability to convey a mother’s grief. In Elderbrush Gulch, the earlier film, her part is secondary to Mae Marsh, but it is Gish’s agony over her missing baby that undermines the supposedly happy ending that has gone before. Not until she finally spies her child do we feel there is any completion.


In The Mothering Heart she is once again betrayed, by her husband’s flirtation. She leaves him and winds up giving birth by herself, and when the infant dies, she goes out and hacks at the rosebushes in an agony of sorrow that will make you forget you ever saw Mommie Dearest. The reunion at the end is as brief as it is hollow, Gish putting her arms around her husband only because there is nothing else left to embrace.


Four times as deep and true as real life–that is, in fact, not a half-bad metaphor for what the great Lillian Gish always brought to the camera.

Farran Smith Nehme blogs about movies at The Self Styled Siren

Fandor currently carries ten films that star or feature Lillian Gish – find out more about them by browsing the titles displayed to the left.

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