“They abide and they endure.” That’s what Lillian Gish famously says of the resilience of children in the closing line of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), but she could just as easily have been talking about the beleaguered heroines she played as one of the silent era’s pre-eminent performers.
Gish, like cinema itself, was born in 1893. MOMA’s three-week retrospective spans the very beginning of her 75-year film career, with the shorts she made in 1912 for D.W. Griffith, to its end, with 1987’s The Whales of August. In her decade-long association with Griffith—Lillian and her beloved younger sister, Dorothy, who both began working on stage when they were barely out of diapers, were introduced to the director by Mary Pickford—the actress became the apotheosis of imperiled, virtuous womanhood. Of Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), in which Gish plays Anna Moore, a country cousin duped into a sham marriage by a city slicker and then abandoned when she becomes pregnant, the actress notes in her 1969 autobiography: “[It] was a horse-and-buggy melodrama. As I read the play I could hardly keep from laughing. . . . I knew that the whole story depended on my making [Anna] plausible.”
That Gish’s performance is still wrenching 90 years later is a testament not just to her endlessly expressive eyes and mouth, but to her physical dedication to the part. For Way Down East’s climax, in which Anna, cast out into a real blizzard, faints on an actual ice floe, Gish suggested to Griffith that her hair and hand trail in the freezing water as she drifts toward the falls—a sequence that, as Gish remembers, required her to be “on a slab of ice at least twenty times a day for three weeks.” Her duress was for the greater good: “Those of us who worked with Mr. Griffith were completely committed to the picture we were making. No sacrifice was too great to get the film right, to get it accurate, true, and perfect.”
The elements also prove a formidable foe in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), her final silent film and her second of two collaborations with the Swedish master, after playing Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1926). As Letty, a Virginia maiden who settles with relatives in Texas, she goes mad from the howling winds that blow sand everywhere and from being raped by the mustachioed wolf she meets on the train ride out west.
Gish’s rarely screened second talkie, the meringue-light His Double Life (1933), shows the actress’s awkward charm in creaky comedies (the film doesn’t warrant a mention in her autobiography). She spent most of the 1930s back on the stage, including a memorable turn as Ophelia in Hamlet (1936). With her return to film in the early ’40s, Gish, no longer the leading lady, still mesmerized in her supporting parts—and no more so than as Rachel Cooper, the gun-toting, Bible-quoting matriarch who looks after a quintet of abandoned kids in The Night of the Hunter. “I’m good for something in this old world, and I know it, too,” Rachel says of her role as a guardian of unwanted waifs. Gish would display the same confidence over the final three decades of her long, glorious career.