Today is the 118th birthday of the silent film star Dorothy Gish, the younger half of the Gish Sister acting dynasty. She was one of the few silent film actors that was able to make the transition to sound films successfully, even if she thought it was less of a challenge and preferred stage acting. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Dorothy Gish
OCCUPATION: Film Actress, Theater Actress
BIRTH DATE: March 11, 1898
DEATH DATE: June 04, 1968
PLACE OF BIRTH: Dayton, Ohio
PLACE OF DEATH: Rapallo, Liguria, Italy
FULL NAME: Dorothy Elizabeth Gish
BEST KNOWN FOR: Dorothy Gish, younger sister of actress Lillian Gish, was a film actress in the first half of the 20th century.
Actress Dorothy Elizabeth Gish was born on March 11, 1898, in Dayton, Ohio. Though many saw her as the less-celebrated younger sister of the famous Lillian Gish, Dorothy was an adept comedian who went on to star in more than 100 short films and features.
Her father, James Leigh Gish, was a candy maker who eventually abandoned the family after his business failed. Her mother, Mary Robinson McConnell, took up acting to support the family, using the stage name Mae. Dorothy Gish and her older sister, Lillian, soon followed their mother onto the stage. Dorothy began performing at the age of 4, appearing as a boy in a production of East Lynne.
Mary, Dorothy and Lillian Gish spent years working on theatrical tours, sometimes together on the same show and other times working on different productions. When not with their mother, the Gish girls were looked after by theatrical friends and associates. During their off-season, Dorothy and her family would spend time in Massillon, Ohio, with her mother’s sister.
In addition to acting, Mary Gish rented out rooms in the family’s New York apartment—this is how Dorothy and her sister met future film star Mary Pickford, who was originally known as Gladys Smith. Years later, the Gish sisters approached Pickford after she began appearing in movies by D.W. Griffith. Pickford introduced them to Griffith, which soon led to their film debut. Dorothy was 14 years old when she and Lillian appeared in An Uneasy Enemy.
Both Dorothy and Lillian Gish enjoyed huge success in film; Dorothy distinguished herself as a fine comedic performer while her sister usually tackled more dramatic roles. Dorothy became known as one of the busiest actresses of the silent-film era, making more than 60 movies during the first few years of her career. Sadly, many of her early works have been lost.
Dorothy Gish made several memorable films as a young woman, including 1918’s Hearts of the World with her sister; her comic turn as Little Disturber in this movie earned her great praise. More humorous roles soon followed, including in Battling Jane (1918) and The Hope Chest (1919). With her sister directing, Dorothy starred opposite James Rennie in the popular 1920 comedy Remodeling Her Husband. Later that year, she married Rennie.
The following year, Dorothy showed off her dramatic talents: She played a blind woman in Orphans of the Storm (1921), co-starring with her sister. Dorothy made her last film with Lillian, Romola, in 1924.
After the film industry converted to talking pictures, Gish transitioned back to the stage. By this time, she was an enormous star and her performances drew large, eager crowds. Notable stage performances include 1928’s Young Love, directed by George Cukor.
For much of the 1930s and ’40s, Gish focused primarily on stage work. She and her husband divorced in 1935.
Gish returned to film in 1944 with a supporting role in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Two years later, she appeared in Centennial Summer. But for Gish, the “talkies” held little appeal. She starred on Broadway as painter Mary Surratt in 1947’s The Story of Mary Surratt, and in 1950, she made her final Broadway appearance in The Man.
The following year, Gish returned to the screen in The Whistle at Eaton Falls, starring Lloyd Bridges. In an interview with The New York Times, she discussed how much filmmaking had changed since her heyday: “Films have become easier work since I was last here,” she said. “In the old days, an actress did her own makeup and hair, prepared her costumes, and sometimes worked 15 and 16 hours a day.” Gish worked with director Otto Preminger on her last film, The Cardinal (1963).
Dorothy Gish spent her final years at a clinic in Italy, according to a New York Times report. Her sister was with her when she died of bronchial pneumonia on June 4, 1968, in Rapallo, Liguria, Italy. Years later, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theater and Gallery was established on the campus of Bowling Green State University, honoring the work of two of film’s great early stars.