Friday, April 4, 2014

Dorothy Gish: Born to Act

Dorothy Gish, 1916. Publicity photo from Stars of the Photoplay, Public Domain. 

Dorothy Gish struggled alongside her sister and mother as they supported the family by performing in melodramas and other stage performances, but her determination and unique comedy style helped guide her into a successful acting career.

The Early Years of Dorothy Gish

On March 11, 1898, Dorothy Elizabeth Gish was born in Dayton, Ohio to Mary Robinson McConnell and James Lee Gish. Dorothy and her older sister, Lillian Gish, were still quite young when they started their acting and modeling careers to help support the family. Their mother, a theater performer, used the stage name Mae Bernard and introduced her daughters to stage melodramas in Rising Sun, Ohio.

Mary Pickford Introduces Dorothy Gish to D.W. Griffith

While working in the theater, Dorothy and Lillian, became friends with actress Gladys Smith. Gladys Smith later changed her name to Mary Pickford when she was given a contract with Biograph Motion Picture Company. Pickford introduced Dorothy and Lillian to the famous director D.W. Griffith, who recognized the talents of the two sisters and cast them in the 1912 film An Unseen Enemy.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in An Unseen Enemy, 1912. Photo in Public Domain.

Dorothy and Lillian played orphaned sisters held hostage by the former family housekeeper and the film was an immediate success.
Dorothy and Lillian Gish wit D.W. Griffith in 1922. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain. 

 Dorothy and Lillian were soon famous silent film stars cast in numerous D.W. Griffith films for the Biograph Motion Picture Company and the D.W. Griffith Productions, including the popular French Revolution film Orphans of the Storm, released in 1921.

Dorothy Gish Begins Her Career in Comedy Films

Dorothy seemed to be overshadowed by the dramatic talents of her older sister, Lillian, but she was determined to be successful and worked hard to develop her own style. She often worked independently from her sister and mother and her talents seemed more appropriate for comedy.

Dorothy Gish starred in Hearts of the World in 1918. Photo in Pubic Domain.

In 1918 she was cast as “the little disturber,” a street-singing waif in the World War I propaganda film Hearts of the World. Although her performance did not seem to attract the attentions of D.W. Griffith, his protégées took note of her comedic presence and she was cast in numerous Paramount-Artcraft films.

Dorothy Gish Marries Actor James Rennie

Dorothy met and fell in love with Canadian actor James Rennie on the set of Remodeling Her Husband, the first and only film directed by Dorothy’s sister, Lillian.

Canadian actor James Rennie, 1924, Photoplay Magazine, public domain.

Dorothy and James were married in 1820, the same year Remodeling Her Husband was released. It was a double ceremony—actress Constance Talmadge of the famed Talmadge trio of silent film star sisters married businessman John Piagoglou at the same time. Dorothy and James Rennie were married fifteen years and divorced in 1935.

The Introduction of Sound Changes the Career of Dorothy Gish

In 1925, Dorothy Gish wrote an article titled “And So I Am A Comedienne” for Ladies Home Journal where she described her struggles and successes with comedy film acting, but when “Talkies” were introduced in the 1930s, Dorothy left the film industry and returned to her first love—the theater. She made numerous theater appearances and later appeared in plays produced for television, as well, returning to film only a few more times.

Dorothy Gish, 1932, US Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division, public domain.

In 1944, Dorothy played Mrs. Skinner in the immensely popular Paramount films production of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, which starred Gail Russell and Diana Lynn. In 1946, she again performed on stage at the Royale Theatre as Fanny Dixwell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee. Again in 1946, Dorothy was cast in Centennial Summer, directed by Otto Preminger. In 1951 she played the widow of a mill owner in the Columbia Pictures production The Whistle at Eaton Falls, starring Lloyd Bridges. In 1963, Dorothy gave her final performance as Celia Fermoyle, the mother of the title character in The Cardinal, another Otto Preminger film starring Tom Tryon and Carol Lynley.

The Death and Legacy of Dorothy Gish

Five years after her last film, Dorothy developed bronchial pneumonia. She was hospitalized in Rapallo, Italy and treated for two years before she died on June 4, 1968 at the age of 70. Her sister, Lillian, was by her side. Dorothy Gish was interred at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish, trailer screenshot from Orphans of the Storm, 1921. Public Domain.

Lillian died in 1993 and was interred beside Dorothy. In her lifetime, Dorothy Gish made 140 film and television appearances. The Gish Film Theater and Gallery in Bowling Green State University is dedicated to the works of both Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Dorothy Gish was also awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, California.


  • An Unseen Enemy. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perfs. Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish. Biograph Company, 1912.
  • "Gish Sisters." The Dorothy &.Lillian Gish Film Theater & Gallery. Bowling Green State University Website.
  • Hearts of the World. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Perfs. D.W. Griffith, David Lloyd George, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish. D.W. Griffith Productions, 1918.
  • "Lillian Gish." American Masters. PBS.Org.


  1. Love the Gish sisters. I loved this one comment I watched on a TV documentary where Dorothy and the other lady(Can't think of her name right now) were walking at night. It was a hot night and this "masher" came up and he wanted sex. Dorothy just looked at him and said "'s just too hot" and with that they kept walking and the man left them alone

  2. That is funny! I loved them, too. There is something very innocent about them. They may have been far more worldly than they appear, but their appeal is their innocence.

  3. Dear Anonymous: No matter how much you try to tempt me with you cheap insults I am not going to post your comments, and I no longer post anonymous comments of any kind.


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