Nothing is stranger in the history of popular culture than the fate of the silent film stars. Their day lasted less than twenty years, and when the break came, it was sharp, quick, and total—Hollywood was hit by a cataclysm, and most of its stars were extinguished almost overnight. There were survivors, of course: relative newcomers like Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Ronald Colman, Norma Shearer, and Janet Gaynor, who made the transition easily. Garbo, an exception to every rule, took her time (or M-G-M took it) and emerged triumphantly in 1930 with Anna Christie; Chaplin simply went on as he began.
Of the older stars, only a few have survived as figures meaningful to us. There are the great comics—Keaton and Lloyd, as well as Chaplin. Valentino has become a byword, partly for his exotic sexuality, partly for his untimely death—the James Dean of his day. Gloria Swanson would have been forgotten if not for her remarkable comeback in Sunset Boulevard. Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks still register, she with her golden curls, he with his swashbuckle; not many people, though, realize that for fifteen years she was the most famous woman in the world. Lon Chaney: the man of a thousand faces—the Hunchback, the Phantom—but who’s seen his movies? The Talmadge sisters, John Gilbert, Blanche Sweet, Colleen Moore, Pola Negri (than whom no one was more legendary)—at best, they’re faint shadows on our radar screen.
And then there is Lillian Gish, who not only survived the death of the silents, going on to a sixty-year career in sound film, on stage, and on TV, but is considered by many the greatest of American actresses. How did this happen? She had been less popular by far—and less well paid, too—than her friend Pickford, than Swanson, than Norma Talmadge. She was reserved off-screen, cooperating with the usual puff journalism but pulling up her skirts at such gimmicks as allowing her image and autograph to appear on one of a set of silver-plated “Oneida Community” movie-star spoons. Her private life was so private that not even her close friends knew for certain whether she had been to bed with the great man of her life, D.W. Griffith, or with Charles Holland Duell Jr., a businessman who was at one time her manager (he sued her for breach of promise and a lot of other things—and lost—in a series of spectacular court cases), or with George Jean Nathan, the famously acerb critic, who for years was her “constant companion,” but whom she steadfastly refused to marry. Marriage? She never “found a name which I would rather carry into eternity than Lillian Gish.”
She was considered a great beauty, with her perfect oval face, pale complexion, and casque of blond hair that was highlighted and glorified by superb cinematographers as well as by photographers like Edward Steichen, but her beauty was childlike rather than glamorous. Although there …