A Shimmering Star in the Cinema Fir-ma-ment

Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish (image in the public domain)
When I was thirteen, my mother took me to see a great star of the silent screen who was signing a coffee table book she’d done about the films of her and her sister. When we reached the front of the line, I couldn’t help myself and gushed, “Oh, Miss Gish, you’re my favorite actress! I loved you in Broken Blossoms and Orphans in the Storm.”

Lillian Gish, who was 80 at the point and had made her greatest films before my mother was born, eyed me suspiciously and asked, “How old are you, child?” In those days before cable and DVD, even before the big public renewal of interest in America’s classic film heritage, it’s not surprising she found the idea someone so young being a devoted fan a little hard to believe. (The answer? My local PBS station, which regularly ran silent films on Saturday night because they fit in the small budget available.)

These days, we don’t have to turn further than Turner Classic Movies which is currently running their annual Summer Under the Stars Festival, featuring the work of different star each day during August. Today celebrates Lillian Gish with films such as Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm, The Scarlet Letter, and, of course, Intolerance, which cost an estimated $2 million in 1916 dollars and bankrupted D.W. Griffith and his studio.

Some of the films may look strange to modern sensibilities and Intolerance has numerous flaws, including it’s length. But there is also something magical in the flickering images to stir the imagination and Intolerance features one of the great panning shots in cinema, still breathtaking even today. This is part of how I refill the creative well, by revisiting these movies whose images inspired me when I was young. What are you doing today to refill your creative well? If you’re looking for something new, take a peak at what Turner Classic has to offer.

Bonus points for anyone who recognizes the source of this post’s title, also taken from a classic film celebrating the end of the silent era.