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TCM celebrates Lillian Gish; a look at First Lady of American Cinema's career

An early publicity photo of Lillian GIsh, the woman who would become The First Lady of American Cinema
An early publicity photo of Lillian GIsh, the woman who would become The First Lady of American Cinema
Biograph Studios Publicity Photo

When film historians talk about pioneers in the business of movie making, director D. W. Griffith and two of his frequent leading ladies, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish are at the top of the list. While Pickford has been dubbed 'America's Sweetheart', it's Gish who garnered the unofficial title of 'First Lady of American Cinema'. On Monday, October 14, TCM pays homage Gish with an early morning mini-marathon to commemorate the actress' birthday.

With a career that spanned an incredible eight decades, included more than 120 movie and TV appearances, resulted in an Honorary Oscar for 'superlative artistry and distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures' and secured her spot among the Top 20 greatest female stars of all time according to the American Film Institute, it's no wonder TCM is honoring this true Hollywood Legend.

Born in Ohio on October 14, 1893, Gish's introduction to the theatre came early, when she and her sister, Dorothy would help their mom, Mary sell candy at the family's Majestic Candy Kitchen, adjacent to the Majestic Theatre. During this same time, both Lillian and her sister began acting in school productions. Under the pseudonym Lillian Niles, Gish made her acting debut at the Majestic in the play "In Convict Stripes" in 1902. She was nine-years-old at the time.

When a fire closed down the Majestic Theatre, the family move to New York. Once there, the young Gish girls befriended a neighbor named Gladys, a young actress who worked professionally as Mary Pickford.

Later that same year, Mary introduced the girls to a director friend named D. W. Griffith. At age 19, Lillian signed to a contract at Biograph Studios. Interestingly, archival documents show the young actress fibbed about her age, stating that she was only 16 at the time.

She made her film debut in D. W. Griffith-directed short, "An Unseen Enemy". In 1912 alone, she would star in a total of 14 shorts under the watchful eye of Griffith. 1913 would see another 17 short films, all but five of those were again directed by D. W. Griffith.

Also in 1913, Gish made her Broadway debut in a five-month-run of "A Good Little Devil". Although she would return to the theatre throughout her career, Gish's primary focus became the movies. On Broadway, Gish would star in a total of 21 shows between 1913 and 1976. Her time in the theatre was most prolific during the 1930s. During the 30s, she appeared in such stage classics as "Camille", Within the Gates" and "Hamlet", starring as Ophelia in the latter.

Back to the movies, Gish would star in another two shorts before being seen in her first feature-length film, "Judith of Bethulia" in 1914. Throughout the teens and twenties, Gish would star in more than forty films, both shorts and feature-length. Among those, true cinematic masterpieces, 1915's "Birth of a Nation", 1916's forward-thinking "Intolerance" Love's Struggle Through the Ages" and the epic love story, 1926's "La bohème".

In 1930, at the age of 37, Gish starred in her first talkie, "One Romantic Night". Unlike some of her silent era contemporaries, Gish's career continued to flourish with the advent of the talking picture. Among her notable film roles are 1933's film adaptation of Arnold Bennett's stage play, "His Double Life" and 1942's "Commandos Strike at Dawn", co-starring Anna Lee and Paul Muni.

Gish would receive her sole Oscar nomination for her impressive work in 1946's "Duel in the Sun" alongside Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton. She followed her Oscar-nominated turn with another critically acclaimed performance in 1948's "Portrait of Jennie".

As she had done at the advent of motion pictures, GIsh was among the first actors to embrace the medium of television. Commercial television first became available in 1948. Pioneering Gish made her first TV appearance on "The Ford Theatre Hour" a few months later in a March 1949 episode titled, "Outward Bound", based on the play by Sutton Vane.

In 1953, Gish combined theatre and television by starring on Broadway in the original production of "The Trip to Bountiful", a filmed version of the stage play, with Gish in the lead role, was broadcast on TV that same year.

1955 saw Gish return to the big screen, first in "The Cobweb" and then in yet another memorable role as Rachel Cooper in "The Night of the Hunter", co-starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.

The remainder of the 50s and 60s saw Gish focusing primarily on television roles, including "Play of the Week"'s presentation of "The Grass Harp", the made-for-TV movies "The Spiral Staircase" and "Arsenic and Old Lace" and a wonderfully unexpected turn in a 1964 episode of "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour". For those interested, Starz's Encore Suspense channel currently runs "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" each weeknight, so you can catch Gish's episode, "Body in the Barn" from time to time.

In her 80s and 90s, during the 1970s and 1980s, Gish showed no signs of depriving fans of her inimitable talents with movie and TV roles ranging from big screen triumphs in "The Comedians", co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov, and "A Wedding", with Carol Burnett, Paul Dooley, Mia Farrow and Dennis Christopher, to the small screen's inevitable appearance on "The Love Boat".

In 1970, she took home the above-mentioned Honorary Oscar. In 1982, Gish was among the honorees at that year's Kennedy Center Honors. In 1984, the American Film Institute bestowed their highest honor, the 'Lifetime Achievement Award' to Gish. At the time, she was only the second female star to receive the award. Bette Davis was the first. Gish is the only silent film star, male or female to ever receive this honor.

In 1987, at the age of 94, Gish starred with a stellar cast of fellow legends including her fellow AFI honoree Bette Davis, as well as Vincent Price, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey, Jr. in her final feature film, "The Whales of August". Many Hollywood insiders were incensed that 'The First Lady of American Cinema' was not nominated for her incredible performance. Of the slight, Gish, herself added humor to the snubbing remarking to the media that "it saved me the trouble of losing to Cher", who indeed won that year for her role in "Moonstruck". Gish did however receive a nomination from The Independent Spirit Awards and won the National Board of Review Award for her final role.

Gish's pioneering spirit, both in the burgeoning era of moving pictures, and later in the golden age of television was, at the time unthinkable, risky and thought beneath stage actors. That never stopped Lillian Gish from sharing her craft with an ever-increaing and very grateful audience.

TCM's October 14 Birthday celebration of the films of Lillian Gish includes: 1919's "Broken Blossoms" at 6 a.m./5 a.m. central; 1923's "The White Sister" at 7:45 a.m./6:45 a.m.central; 1926's "La bohème" at 9:15 a.m./8:15 a.m. central; 1926's "The Scarlet Letter" at 11 a.m./10 a.m. central; and the mini-marathon's sole talkie, 1930's "One Romantic Night" at 12:45 p.m./11:45 a.m. central. If you missed today's marathon, CLICK HERE to peruse TCM's online store, as a number of Lillian Gish' films are currently available for purchase. You can also tune in to TCM on Sunday night's for their weekly Silent Sunday Nights, which occasionally features some of Gish's early works. For more about Lillian Gish, CLICK HERE to visit the official website dedicated to her work and career.

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