The inspiration for MoMA’s upcoming Lillian Gish retrospective came about during the planning of the publication Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. When I was asked to write an essay on a film artist for the book, actress Lillian Gish quickly came to mind. Not only is she integral to the history of film, but also to the history of film collecting at MoMA. She was an early champion of the Department of Film’s preservation efforts, and she was instrumental in getting her frequent collaborator D. W. Griffith to give his films to the Museum.
From November 26 through December 13, our Lillian Gish retrospective gives audiences an opportunity to sample Gish’s films, from her first silent short, An Unseen Enemy (1912), to her last film, The Whales of August (1987). MoMA’s last retrospective of Gish’s work, Lillian Gish: A Film Retrospective, took place from September 19 to October 7, 1980. Like the upcoming series, the 1980 exhibition consisted of sixteen programs that spanned Gish’s entire career—ending with A Wedding (1978); Gish continued to act for another decade—but although the upcoming retrospective includes many of the same films shown in the 1980 series, including Hearts of the World (1918), True Heart Susie (1919), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1922), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), His Double Life (1933), The Trip to Bountiful (1953), and The Night of the Hunter (1955), it differs from MoMA’s last examination of Gish’s career in certain key aspects. The upcoming retrospective draws entirely from the Museum’s collection and, as evidenced by the inclusion of The Whales of August, the Museum continued its relationship with Gish well beyond the 1980 retrospective, which had encapsulated the 87-year-old actress’s already long and illustrious career.
The other important difference was Gish’s personal involvement. It certainly would have been wonderful to meet Gish and hear her speak about her work, but with her passing in 1993, this current film series can only comment on Gish’s work from a historical perspective. However, thanks to the Museum’s record of its exhibitions, we can imagine what Gish’s participation might have entailed for those of us three decades removed from the 1980 retrospective.
The opening involved a gala reception on September 18 with Gish herself in attendance, along with such stage and screen luminaries as Sir John Gielgud, Joan Bennett, Helen Hayes, Irene Worth, Anita Loos, Celeste Holm, Joan Fontaine, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden. After a clip reel with scenes from Broken Blossoms and The Night of the Hunter, her friends and colleagues, including Gielgud, Hayes, and then Museum President Blanchette Rockefeller, offered tributes in MoMA’s Titus Theater 1. And then, of course, a lavish party at the Museum followed.
A few days later, Gish, true to character, sent heartfelt personal notes to members of the film department who had contributed to the retrospective. To Mary Lea Bandy, MoMA’s Chief Curator of Film at the time, Gish wrote, “Why are there no words that I can find to express how grateful I am to you and MoMA for my glorious evening and thrilling retrospective? Thank you is so inadequate and what I feel in my heart would have to go on for pages and pages…” (September 29, 1980). To Charles Silver, Curator in the Department of Film, who had written a comprehensive booklet on Gish’s work on the occasion of the retrospective, Gish wrote, “As an actress I am used to having other people provide words for me. I have gone through the dictionary and cannot find the words to express what I feel in my heart about you and your booklet for the MoMA retrospective. Thank you is so inadequate. My tears of love are sent to you with the most humble gratitude” (September 29, 1980). Gish closed her notes with variations of “Eternally grateful” that conveyed succinctly and fully her appreciation. Although it’s her trademark closing for her personal letters, it is we who are eternally grateful to Gish for her contributions to film.