Southwest Ohio’s first movie stars: The Gish sisters, silent film idols in Hollywood’s infancy

Sisters began acting careers as children.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish, sisters who came to fame in the early age of the silver screen, have roots in the Miami Valley.

Lillian was born in Springfield on Oct. 14, 1893, to James Leigh Gish and Mary McDonnell Gish, who was from Urbana. The family lived in a two-story home that is still standing at 621 Linden Ave. in Springfield.

By the time Dorothy was born five years later, on March 11, 1898, the family was living in Dayton.

The family moved again and eventually settled in New York City. Their father, an unsuccessful candy merchant, left the family after the move.

To make ends meet the girls’ mother took a job acting with a stock company. Roles for children were available, and both girls signed on and began traveling the country performing and doing some modeling work.

In 1912, the girls were introduced to film director D.W. Griffith by famed actress Mary Pickford. Griffith offered the sisters their first film roles in “An Unseen Enemy,” a 17-minute silent drama, but not before he put them through an unconventional audition.

“He said he wanted to see if we could act,” Lillian Gish wrote in her book, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish.” “Since words meant nothing, he soon took a gun out of his pocket and began chasing us around the room firing at the ceiling. We were sure we were in an insane asylum.”

The black and white film opens with the sisters, who play the orphans of a deceased doctor, consoling each other. Their poignant faces and body language are so expressive throughout the film, no sound is needed.

To distinguish between the two, Griffith had Dorothy wear a red ribbon in her hair, and Lillian wore a blue ribbon. While filming, he would call out “Red” or “Blue” depending on which sister he was giving direction to.

The sisters made scores of movies during their early careers, playing innocent wide-eyed beauties. Black and white photographs capture the sisters in costume together and in individual promotional portraits.

Lillian went on to star in many more of Griffith’s films, including the controversial 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation,” a silent drama that was the nation’s first feature-length motion picture but also a racist depiction of historical events.

Known as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen,” she had difficulty transitioning to talking movies early on, according to the Associated Press.

“I have never approved of talkies,” she said. “It seemed to me that movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomime, but something wonderfully expressive.”

She mastered the new art form and was nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 1946 for “Duel in the Sun.”

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

Dorothy was also an acclaimed film and stage actress. She performed in more than 100 films and 23 stage performances and made some early appearances on television during her career.

Her most renowned portrayal was the stage production of “The Magnificent Yankee,” according to her obituary published in the Dayton Journal Herald in 1968.

Dorothy died in Italy with her sister at her side at age 70. Lillian died in 1993 in New York at age 99.

“The two sisters conquered every facet of American show business from road companies through silent films, talkies, theater and television,” wrote a reporter in 1968. The Gish sisters were “as much a part of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S. Truman.”

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