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The Remarkable Gish Sisters

When siblings share the same profession, envy and competition can destroy family bonds. Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine were an example of this. Conversely, there were the Gish sisters, who did not exhibit feelings of rivalry. In fact, Dorothy Gish was quoted in an issue of “Stage Magazine” as saying, “I never cease to wonder at my luck in having for my sister the woman who, more than any other woman in America, possesses all the qualities of true greatness.” In kind, sister Lillian Gish was quoted about Dorothy, “Many more than myself thought Dorothy was better.”

Born to Mary McConnell and James Lee Gish, were daughters Lillian, the elder, and Dorothy. After James abandoned the family, Mary McConnell turned to the stage for financial support. It was not as bleak as it may have seemed. Lillian recalls, “The stage was our school, our home, our life.”

While touring with various productions, Mary became close friends with Charlotte Smith. Lillian and Dorothy became lifelong friends with Charlotte’s daughter, Gladys. Gladys would later be known as Mary Pickford. Pickford helped set the sisters’ film careers in motion. When Pickford held a contract with Biograph Studios, she introduced the Gish sisters to director D.W. Griffith, who immediately set the Gish sister to work in film

Their first onscreen appearance together was in “The Unknown Enemy” (1912). They played, what else? Sisters. Their last onscreen appearance together was “The Sisters.” (1914). Later, in 1920, their final cinematic collaboration was with Lillian behind the camera as writer of “Remodeling Her Husband.” Dorothy would play the starring role. This film was Lillian’s first and last directorial effort.

Though most of their roles together were as “extras”, they made twenty-one films in two years. When they separated to continue independent careers, Dorothy retired from film soon after the silent film era ended. She returned to the stage and made a few television appearances. In 1967, Dorothy passed away at the age of 70.

Lillian continued in film. Her popularity grew. She became known as “The First Lady of the Silver Screen.” Lillian may be most remembered for her role as “Rachel Cooper” in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955). In 1971, Lillian received an Honorary Academy Award. In 1984, the American Film Institute honored Lillian with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1993, Lillian Gish passed away at the age of 99.

Today, tributes are still being made to both sisters. Last year, in the sisters’ hometown of Springfield, Ohio, The Lillian Gish Film Festival was held for three days. At Bowling Green University, located in Bowling Green, Ohio, The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Film Theatre shows films ranging from classic to contemporary which are free to the public. The theatre also houses a large amount of memorabilia from the sisters’ estates.

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