Gish Sisters

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Lillian and Dorothy Gish were film legends in their own time; actresses who changed the perception of what screen acting could be at a time when films were thought to be "low art" at best. Though the sisters achieved global stardom on the silver screen, they never forgot their Ohio roots. Lillian was born to James Leigh Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell in Springfield, Ohio on October 14, 1893; Dorothy was born slightly less than five years later in Dayton, Ohio on March 11, 1898. Their father was often absent, struggling to make a living elsewhere and leaving Mary alone to raise the girls. In order to support her family, Mary pursued a career as an actress, taking the stage name Mae Bernard. It was not long before the Gish sisters were themselves lured into performing in stage melodramas; Dorothy making her debut as Little Willie in the play, East Lynne, and Lillian debuting in 1902 in the melodrama In Convict Stripes at the Risingsun Opera House in Rising Sun, Ohio, a town located 20 miles from Bowling Green in Wood County, Ohio.

The three Gish women performed in various stage melodrama touring companies throughout the first decade of the 20th century, often independent of one another. During the off season, the Gish's spent their time in Massillon, Ohio at the home of Mary's sister, Emily Ward Robinson McConnell. In June 1912, while touring in Baltimore, the Gish sisters stopped by a nickelodeon where they saw an old acting friend, Gladys Smith, on the screen. The Gish's tracked Gladys Smith to New York City, where they discovered she had changed her name to Mary Pickford and was under contract to the Biograph Motion Picture Company. Pickford convinced the Gish sisters to try their hand at film acting, an opportunity that certainly offered more money than the stage, and the Gish family was soon introduced to the Biograph Company's star director, D.W. Griffith.

D.W. Griffith immediately recognized the talent and potential screen presence of the Gish sisters and cast them together in their film debut, 1912's An Unseen Enemy. Lillian and Dorothy Gish, having perfected their craft on the stage, brought a theatrical style to motion picture acting that had rarely been seen up until this time. It was not long before the sisters' star was on the rise and they were able to secure bigger parts in some of Biograph's more epic productions, such as Judith of Bethulia (1914), The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Each sister had her own signature style: Dorothy was suited more to comedies, while Lillian's intense acting style made her perfect for melodramatic tragedies and historical set pieces, an attribute which led to her position as D.W. Griffith's star player. The Gish's prominence within the Biograph company continued to rise throughout the 1910s, as did their global reputation as two of silent cinema's greatest actresses.

The Gish sister's rise to fame was at its peak at the beginning of the 1920s. Lillian Gish tried her hand at directing with the 1920 comedy entitled, Remodeling Her Husband, which, not surprisingly, starred Dorothy Gish. In 1921, the Gish sisters starred together in Orphans of the Storm, their last film for Biograph and one of their finest joint achievements. Upon leaving Biograph, and after one more film together, 1924's Romola, made for the Inspiration Company, the Gish sisters parted ways. Lillian signed a contract with MGM and went on to make some of the best films of her career, such as The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), under the direction of Swedish film maker Victor Sjöström, while Dorothy moved to London to pursue a career abroad.

With the coming of sound to motion pictures, new stars were born and by the beginning of the 1930s both sisters slowed their steady pace of film acting and began to perform more regularly on the stage. Dorothy would only make a handful of films during the decades following the 1930s, including Otto Preminger's 1963 film The Cardinal, while Lillian, with her tenacious nature and tremendous work ethic, continued to act in films into the 1980s. Some highlights of Lillian's later career included wonderful performances in Charles Laughton's 1955 film, The Night of the Hunter, and her final screen performance in The Whales of August (1987), directed by Lindsay Anderson and co-starring Bette Davis.

Dorothy Gish died in Italy on June 4, 1968; eight years later The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater and Gallery was dedicated at Bowling Green State University, with Lillian in attendance. The dedication of the theater in honor of the Gish sisters cemented their status as two of Ohio's most renowned native daughters, and Lillian, who often referred to herself as a "Buckeye," was proud that the legacy of her and her sister would live on in the state of her birth, her fondest childhood memories, and the location of her acting debut. Lillian Gish died on February 27, 1993, just months short of her 100th birthday. The Gish Film Theater and Gallery strives to keep the memory of the talented and legendary Gish sisters alive so that future generations of film lovers can have the chance to witness firsthand what made Dorothy and Lillian Gish such popular and enduring figures during the earliest years of motion picture history.

Click here for Gish Sister filmographies