Sunday, March 11, 2012


One of the true silent icons celebrates a birthday today March 11th. On this day silent film actress Dorothy Gish was born in 1898. Gish was born in Dayton, Ohio. She had an older sister, Lillian. The Gish sisters' mother, Mary Robinson McConnell "Gish", supported the family after her husband, James Leigh Gish, abandoned the family. When they were old enough, Dorothy and Lillian were brought into their mother's act, and they also modeled. In 1912, their childhood friend, actress Mary Pickford, introduced them to director D.W. Griffith, and the sisters began acting at the Biograph Studios. Dorothy and Lillian Gish both debuted in Griffith's An Unseen Enemy. Dorothy would go on to star in over 100 short films and features, many of them with Lillian.

In Hearts of the World (1918), a film about World War I and the devastation of France, Dorothy found her first foothold, striking a personal hit in a comedy role that captured the essence of her sense of humor. As the “little disturber”, a street singer, her performance was the comic highlight of the film, and her characterization in this role catapulted her into a career as a star of comedy films.

Griffith did not use Dorothy in any of his earliest epics, but while he spent months working on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Dorothy was featured in many feature-length films made under the banner of Triangle and Mutual releases. They were directed by young Griffith protégés such as Donald Crisp, James Kirkwood, and Christy Cabanne. Elmer Clifton directed a series of seven Paramount-Artcraft comedies with Dorothy that were so successful and popular that the tremendous revenue they raked in helped to pay the cost of Griffith’s expensive epics. These films were wildly popular with the public and the critics. She specialised in pantomime and light comedy, while her sister appeared in tragic roles. Dorothy became famous in this long series of Griffith-supervised films for the Triangle-Fine Arts and Paramount companies from 1918 through 1920, comedies that put her in the front ranks of film comediennes. Almost all of these films are now considered to be lost films.

When the film industry converted to talking pictures, Dorothy made one, Wolves (1930), but then chose to take a respite from film work and return to the American stage where she had spent her childhood. George Cukor directed her in Young Love, and the light comedy found success with New York audiences as well as those on the road. A London production followed with equal success.

Television in the 1950s offered many actors the opportunity to appear in plays broadcast live. Dorothy ventured into the new medium, appearing on NBC’s Lux Video Theatre on the night of November 24, 1955, in a production of Miss Susie Slagle’s. The play had been a film in 1945 with her sister, Lillian, made for Paramount Pictures Corporation.

From 1930 until her death, she only appeared in five more movies. Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1944) was a hit for Paramount. The Magnificent Yankee (1946) presented Dorothy at the Royale Theater. Lillian noted in her pictorial book, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, John Chapman's review of the film: "Miss [Dorothy] Gish and Mr. Calhern give the finest performances I have ever seen them in. She is a delight and a darling."

Director Otto Preminger cast Dorothy in his 1946 film, Centennial Summer, and she was said to have been amused that she and some of the other stars were allowed to sing Jerome Kern’s music. Mae Marsh appeared in the film in one of her many bit parts. The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951) was a documentary style film produced by Louis de Rochemont. Dorothy played the widow of a mill owner.

She died in 1968 from bronchial pneumonia at the age of 70 at a clinic in Rapallo, Italy where she had been a patient for two years, with sister Lillian at her side. Dorothy Gish was entombed in Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City in the columbarium in the undercroft of the church...

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