A Legend of the Silver Screen

March 02, 1993

Actress Lillian Gish, who died Saturday at age 99, enjoyed a movie career that spanned nearly the entire history of the motion picture industry. She first appeared before the camera in 1909, at the age of 16, in a short film by the pioneering American director D.W. Griffith. Her last movie performance, as an indomitable old woman in "The Whales of August," came in 1987, when she co-starred with another screen legend, Bette Davis.

Ms. Gish, whose family lived briefly in Baltimore during the 1890s, was only 5 when she made her acting debut. But it was her association with Griffith, begun in 1909, that catapulted her to stardom. She was introduced to the famous director by the daughter of a former boarder in the Gish household, Mary Pickford. For the next decade, Ms. Gish and her sister, Dorothy, played in dozens of short films by Griffith as well as the landmark feature-length movies "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance."

During her years with Griffith, Ms. Gish portrayed the fragile, waif-like heroine popularized by 19th century Victorian novels. In contrast to lusty silent divas like Clara Bow, whose come-hither screen presence earned her the sobriquet of the "It Girl," Ms. Gish's roles were idealized feminine subjects -- pure, saintly, untainted by sexual feeling.

The effect was further heightened by the orthochromatic photographic emulsions used in early film stock, which imparted to faces on screen an ethereal, ghost-like transparency. Ms. Gish once joked, "I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role."

Ms. Gish went on to hone her art in dozens of film, theater and television roles over the course of a remarkable 85-year career. She was one of the few silent screen idols to make the transition to "talkies," as sound pictures were called when they appeared in the late 1920s -- a feat she attributed to hard work and complete dedication to her craft. In 1975 she told an interviewer, "I wanted to be an actress. When I was in the movies, I didn't care what I looked like, except for that image up there on the screen. I wanted to create beauty when it was necessary; that's an inner thing. But if all you have is a facade, it isn't interesting."

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