I accompanied my Lillian Gish marathon with Charles Affron’s 2002 biography, Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. Before deciding on this particular volume, I was a bit apprehensive about its accuracy given the rather lukewarm reviews it had gotten on Amazon. It seemed that the main criticism concerned the author’s apparent antagonism toward much of Lillian’s body of work. I was prepared for a heavy-handed assessment of some of the most famous films in the silent canon. What I read instead was an eloquent, level-headed look at not only the life of Gish, but also the history of the movies starting from its infancy as an art form (indeed, even before it was considered to be “art” at all).
Like many actresses, Lillian was known for shaving a few years off her birth date. She entered film at a time when an actresses’s youth was perhaps her most important asset. Under the harsh lights of the early Biograph studios, Lillian knew it was in her best interest to not only appear as youthful as possible, but also make sure that those around her believed in this youth as well. The mythology of D. W. Griffith and the pioneering days of cinema were subjects that Lillian held close to her own personal mythology for the rest of her life. She seized every opportunity to educate an increasingly fickle public about Griffith (as she called him, the “father of film”) and his revolutionary contributions to film. She maintained the luminous virginality of her public image to the very end. Gish never married, but she had several rumored engagements. One, to Charles Duell, her would-be producer and business manager in the early 1920s, ended in years of litigation. The publicity did little to damage her saintly reputation with the public, however. While Lillian cultivated an image of fragility, she was anything but. Physical health was very important to her (she lived to be 100), and her steely will bolstered her through an incredible career that lasted almost until her death.
Affron’s examinations of Lillian’s films reveals an author who believes completely in Gish’s talents as not only an actress, but a grand tragedienne. What appear to be stinging commentaries on significant entries in her early work are actually fair assessments by a man who knows that Lillian’s talent far outpaces her material. The little girl acts that she performs for Griffith are a particular point of criticism, but this is only because Lillian’s talents would be much better served with roles that truly challenged her skills. Affron affords Gish ample praise for her inimitable performances in Broken Blossoms (1919), The White Sister (1923), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and the masterful The Wind (1928). This book is not the product of a man who has tired of his muse; rather, it is an evaluation that has the benefit of hindsight and the tempered respect and admiration cultivated after spending years in the company of one such as Lillian Gish.