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10 Best Movies of Lillian Gish: Legacy of the First Lady of Cinema

Welcome to the Memorial Film Collection of Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish may have passed away in the distant past, but thanks to an enthralling, good old invention called Film, she will never be really gone.

Whenever you feel like traveling back in time to meet the First Lady of American Cinema, and to witness her stunningly emotional performance, all you have to do, is watching one (or more) of her movies.

But which ones should you watch?
Well, if that’s the very question lurking in your mind right now, then you came to the right place. We’re just about to present the 10 Best Movies of Lillian Gish.

If this is your first ride on the time-travelling FrameTrek Wagon, here’s what this is all about:

We choose a topic, in this case: “Best Movies of Lillian Gish”, and we set sail for a journey, where the bricks of the trek are made of movie frames, and each stop represents a magnificent achievement in Film.

The Best Movies of Lillian Gish is an episode of FrameTrek’s Hall of Legends: A mega-journey dedicated to identify the greatest artists of World Cinema, and their most significant works.


Meet Lillian Gish, the First Lady of American Cinema

(1893 – 1993)

Lillian Gish, the First Lady of American Cinema

Lillian Gish, also known as The First Lady of American Cinema was one of the most popular and most gifted actresses of the Silent Era.

She is credited with pioneering fundamental film performance techniques, being the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen.

I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.

Lillan Gish

Gish was born in 1893, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father was an alcoholic who was rarely at home, leaving his family to fend for themselves.

To help make ends meet, Lillian, her sister Dorothy and their mother, Mary started acting in local productions.

Lillian was only six years old when she first appeared in front of an audience. After over 10 years of successful stage acting, she was discovered by cinema pioneer D. W. Griffith, who immediately cast her in what was to be her first film.

Her career spanned 75 years, from 1912 to 1987. This was regarded as the longest acting career of any movie legend of the first 100 years of film.

Gish’s early roles were of innocent, virginal characters who are victimized by a cruel world, but later on she often played willful but conflicted women.

Those little virgins, after five minutes you got sick of playing them – to make them more interesting was hard work.

Lillian Gish

So yeah, there’s plenty to talk about, when it comes to Lillian Gish, but this article concentrates on her Top 10 Films, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

After all, an actress is as good as her greatest achievements. Thus, the finest way to familiarize yourself with Gish, is through watching her best films as a marathon.

Ready? Buckle up then, and let the best movies of Lillian Gish carry you to the Silent Era and beyond!

See FrameTrek's definition of 'Best' and the story behind this List (click to expand) ↴

How to define ‘Best’?

That’s a pretty good question, since ‘Best’ is relative. A movie can be considered being among the best for multiple reasons, such as: Critical Acclaim, Audience Feedback, Box Office Performance, Awards and Nominations, Iconic Status, Popularity, Watchability, and even Personal Preference, or for being part of a famous list such as the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die or Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies list – or because that particular movie defined its era, or because it was a defining achievement of the artist(s) involved.

So how did we pick the Top 10 Movies of Lillian Gish?

Well, it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy! Lillian Gish headlined so many excellent films, that it’s almost impossible to build a “Top List”, without leaving some of her great movies out of the spotlight. We did our best though.

While composing the Best Films of Lillian Gish list, we tried to consider all of the factors mentioned in the ‘How to define Best’ paragraph above, and then some.

We believe that the movies that made the cut should not compete with one another any further, so we will just present them in the order they were released in.

If you watch these movies in a chronological order, you will embark on a cinematic journey through Lillian Gish’s life, following her from the start of her career to the end.



Presenting the 10 Best Films of Lillian Gish

Chronologically


The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Best Lillian Gish Films
Where to Watch?   More info

Short silent drama gangster film directed by D. W. Griffith.

Story: A young wife and her musician husband live in poverty and struggle to survive in the crime ridden environment of New York City.

Between Frames:
✪ Location shots in New York City reportedly used actual street gang members as extras during the film.

Why is The Musketeers of Pig Alley among the best movies of Lillian Gish?
✓ Credited for its early use of follow focus, a fundamental tool in cinematography.
✓ Added to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Widely considered the first modern American gangster film.


The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The film that made a star out of Lillian Gish.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), Best movies of Lillian Gish
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent epic historical drama film directed and co-produced by D. W. Griffith.

The story takes place during the American Civil War. It is based on the groundbreaking historical novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, first published in 1905, written by american author Thomas F. Dixon Jr. Would you like to read the book?

Racial depictions aside, The Birth of a Nation is a landmark film whose achievements and pioneering techniques remain fully relevant today.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Birth of a Nation among the best films of Lillian Gish?
✓ Its one of the most controversial movies of all time, due to its racist overtones and for being responsible for the revival of the long-dead Ku Klux Klan.
✓ It pioneered close-ups, fade-outs, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.
✓ The earliest feature-length film among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and it’s also on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.


Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)

Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916), Best films of Lillian Gish
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent epic historical drama film directed by D. W. Griffith.

The movie tells four parallel stories of intolerance in four different historical eras. These stories revolve around a mountain girl of ancient Babylon, Jesus Christ, two Huguenots in 1572 and a young couple in modern America.

A pioneering classic and one of the most influential films ever made, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance stands as the crowning jewel in an incredible filmography.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Intolerance among the top movies of Lillian Gish?
✓ In the years following its release, this movie would strongly influence European film movements.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and selected by the Vatican in the “values” category of its list of 45 “great films”.
✓ It was one of the first films to be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919), Top movies of Lillian Gish
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent romantic drama film directed by D.W. Griffith.

It is based on the romantic short story The Chink and the Child written by British author Thomas Burke, in his collection of Chinatown tales, entitled Limehouse Nights, first published in 1916. Would you like to read the book?

The heartbreaking story of a waterfront waif from the Limehouse district of London who escapes the abuse of her father through a doomed relationship with a Chinese immigrant. (Amazon)

Between Frames:
✪ While filming the closet scene, Lillian Gish’s performance of pure terror was so realistic that D.W. Griffith was compelled to shout back at her and urge her further. A passerby heard this and he was so convinced that something terrible was going on, that he had to be restrained from entering the studio.

Thought-provoking and beautifully filmed, D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms presents a master at the top of his form.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is Broken Blossoms among the top films of Lillian Gish?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.



True Heart Susie (1919)

True Heart Susie (1919), Top films of Lillian Gish
Where to Watch?   More info

Silent romantic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith.

Story: Susie, a plain young country girl, secretly loves a neighbor boy, William. She believes in him and sacrifices much of her own happiness to promote his own ambitions, all without his knowledge. (Amazon)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most beautiful films, a pastoral fable of a sort that no one could ever make again, because the sensitivity and spirit have vanished along with the landscape.

Dave Kehr

Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East (1920), Greatest movies of Lillian Gish
Where to Watch?   More info

American silent romantic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith.

Story: A naive country girl is tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy womanizer, then must rebuild her life despite the taint of having borne a child out of wedlock. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Lillian Gish stated that in the climactic river scene, her hair froze and broke off after trailing in the icy water, and her hand (which also trailed in the water) ached for the rest of her life.

Why is Way Down East among the greatest movies of Lillian Gish?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
✓ One of the most popular and highest grossing movies of the 1920s, and an all-time silent classic.


Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Orphans of the Storm (1921), Greatest films of Lillian Gish
Where to Watch?   More info

Romantic history drama film directed by D. W. Griffith.

Story: Two orphaned sisters are caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution, encountering misery and love along the way. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ D. W. Griffith used this movie as a means of commenting, obliquely, on the politics of his time, using the French Revolution to warn about the rise of Bolshevism.
✪ Lifelong Republican Lillian Gish was thrilled to be invited to the White House by the president following the premiere of this film.

Orphans of the Storm is included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.


The Wind (1928)

The Wind (1928), Best Lillian Gish Movies
Where to Watch?   More info

American silent romantic drama film directed by Victor Sjöström.

Story: A frail young woman from the east moves in with her cousin in the west, where she causes tension within the family and is slowly driven mad. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ The wind in the film was created by the propellers of eight aircraft stationed on location in the Mojave Desert.

Why is The Wind among the greatest films of Lillian Gish?
✓ Selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
✓ Widely considered to be among the greatest silent films.



The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955), Best Lillian Gish Movies
Where to Watch?   More info

Thriller crime film-noir directed by Charles Laughton.

Story: A religious fanatic marries a gullible widow whose young children are reluctant to tell him where their real daddy hid $10,000 he’d stolen in a robbery. (IMDB)

Featuring Robert Mitchum’s formidable performance as a child-hunting preacher, The Night of the Hunter is a disturbing look at good and evil.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus

Why is The Night of the Hunter among the best Lillian Gish movies?
✓ Included among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
✓ Deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


The Whales of August (1987)

The final theatrical feature film of Lillian Gish.

The Whales of August (1987), Best Lillian Gish Films
Where to Watch?   More info

American drama film directed by Lindsay Anderson and co-starring Bette Davis.

Story: Two aged sisters reflect on life and the past during a late summer day in Maine. (IMDB)

Between Frames:
✪ Lillian Gish was 93 when she co-starred in this film, making her the oldest actress ever to feature in a leading role. (up to that point)
✪ Bette Davis said about Lilian Gish that it was very difficult to work with her, because she could nearly hear nothing at all.

Reportedly, Lillian Gish received about a ten minute standing ovation when she attended the film’s out of competition screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987.


The end of Lillian Gish’s Story

Old Lillian Gish

At the dawn of the sound era, she returned to the stage and appeared in film infrequently. During her later years Gish became a dedicated advocate for the appreciation and preservation of silent film.

She maintained a very close relationship with her sister Dorothy, as well as with Mary Pickford, for her entire life. She never married or had children.

Lillian Gish died peacefully in her sleep at her Manhattan apartment in New York City in 1993, aged 99. Her body was interred beside her sister Dorothy Gish at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of Lillian Gish, you may want to read her autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me.



…end of the reel…

So there you have it: The 10 Greatest Films of Lillian Gish

If you want to take a look at the movies listed above, without all that info between the titles, here’s a quick recap:

10 Best Movies of Lillian Gish
Legacy of the First Lady of American Cinema
The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
The Birth of a Nation 1915
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages 1916
Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916)
Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl 1919
Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)
True Heart Susie 1919
True Heart Susie (1919)
Way Down East 1920
Way Down East (1920)
Orphans of the Storm 1921
Orphans of the Storm (1921)
The Wind 1928
The Wind (1928)
The Night of the Hunter 1955
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Whales of August 1987
The Whales of August (1987)
*Click any title for more info or for Streaming / Disc Buying options

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