Poor Dorothy Gish. Not a surprising start, is it? Dorothy Gish, by all accounts as happy and fun in real life as she portrayed in her signature silent screen roles, is of course mega-star Lillian Gish's little sister, and always takes a back-seat to Lillian when they're discussed.
Despite being commonly thought of as a silent comedienne, Dorothy's best known film appearances are actually a pair of dramatic classics directed by D.W. Griffith, Hearts of the World (1918) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), both of which feature sister Lillian. Heck, I don't even have a profile of Dorothy up on things-and-other-stuff.com, despite Lillian's being one of the first posted years ago.
While it's true that Dorothy Gish is overshadowed by her big sister, and while it's also true that Lillian's star deserves to tower high above, let's not forget that Dorothy Gish was a skilled actress, more versatile than Lillian, and despite all but disappearing from the screen Dorothy did manage to enjoy a strong career on stage after the silent period.
Dorothy Gish was born on this date, March 11, 1898 in Dayton, Ohio and was on stage by 1902. After the Gish patriarch went belly-up in business, Mary Gish took to the road with the girls and they started earning. One of their child star compatriots of the stage during this period was young Gladys Smith, whom they were shocked to find working for Griffith at Biograph under her new name, Mary Pickford. Pickford landed the reluctant Gishes an audition with Griffith, and in 1912 they made their screen debut together in the classic An Unseen Enemy.
If you've seen your share of silent documentaries you'll recognize An Unseen Enemy as the flick where the girls have frantically locked themselves up in a room and a gun pokes through a hole in the wall to threaten them. It's a very impressive scene where the immense terror gripping Lillian and Dorothy is played so believably that you're left amazed this is their first time out.
An Unseen Enemy is shown in this video below, courtesy of Gallenmovies on YouTube. The gun's going to poke through the wall at approximately 8:51:
Dorothy worked for Griffith into 1918 before taking off for Paramount. It's often stated that Griffith always encouraged his actors to leave him for the big pay day and I suppose it was that loyalty that helped make them so loyal in return. It's no surprise that Dorothy returned to Griffith for Orphans of the Storm, which despite being a full-length film also manages to have a single scene ingrained in my mind: Dorothy and Lillian, playing sisters, have been separated, and Lillian from a window above spots her blind sister singing in the streets below. Lillian's desperate longing for her sister from above makes for one of silent cinema's classic moments. Will they find each other again?
The 1920 death of Bobby Harron was one of the biggest blows of Dorothy's life. Sources note her tight-lipped nature when it came to things personal and speculate upon whether their relationship was platonic or romantic. Whatever the case, within months she would marry actor James Rennie in a double wedding which also saw pal Constance Talmadge hitched. Dorothy and Rennie would separate in 1930, divorce in 1935, but remain friendly, further testament to Dorothy's good nature. This was her only marriage.
Henry King directed the sisters in 1924's Romola, where Dorothy gets to steal the show some with a dramatic suicide by drowning. Dorothy Gish starred in Nell Gwynne (1926), a British-made film which found popularity in America. Her talkie debut was in a British made film as well, Wolves (1930), but Dorothy had by that time already returned to the stage, starring in Young Love for 83 performances running through 1928-29.
Dorothy Gish appeared in the occasional movie from the 1940's-60's, guested on some anthology series on TV throughout the 1950's, but was most active on stage, performing regularly on Broadway throughout the 1930's and up until 1950. She also appeared opposite Lillian on stage, their final work of any kind together coming with the touring company of The Chalk Garden in 1956.
Dorothy Gish would die of bronchial pneumonia on June 4, 1968 at her home in Italy. Lillian would survive until 1993, when according to the IMDb her age, always in dispute, was 99. David Thomson give a nice concise picture of what Dorothy Gish was like, especially in comparison to Lillian, at the close of his entry on her in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2004, Alfred A. Knopf):
...it's clear that Dorothy had the happier nature, and the more normal life: she liked men, she liked a good drink, she liked a good party, she liked a good time. Her career was a satisfying one, but it wasn't everything (348).
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