A Passing of Legends
Gish: She was there when the movies began
Charlie Chaplin brought laughter to the screen, Mary Pick-ford sunshiny fables, and Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling adventure. But no one in the silent era demonstrated the dramatic possibilities of motion pictures better than Lillian Gish. According to film historian William K. Ever-son (American Silent Film), the actress, who died in Manhattan on Feb. 27 at age 99, “could change the whole meaning and emphasis of a scene merely by lowering her eyelids.”
Gish was born in 1893, the year the movie camera was invented, and she made more than 100 films. The most famous—The Birth of a Nation (1915); Broken Blossoms (1919); and Orphans of the Storm (1922)—were directed by the legendary D.W. Griffith, who once said that Gish had “the best mind of any woman I have ever met.” Perhaps what he liked about Gish was her professional passion. In Way Down East (1920), she insisted on doing her own stunts, which included clinging to an ice floe as it raced along a roaring river.
But nothing the movies dished out could have been tougher than Gish’s own childhood. The elder of two sisters (Dorothy Gish, who died in 1968, was also a screen star whose forte was comedy), she was born in Springfield, Ohio, to James Gish, a candy store owner, and his wife, Mary. When James abandoned the family, Mary moved her girls to New York City, where a theatrical promoter recruited 5-year-old Lillian to barnstorm the country in the play In Convict’s Stripes. (Eventually, Dorothy and Mom went on the road as well.) In 1910, Mary Pickford, a friend who had shared their Manhattan apartment, suggested that the Gishes try breaking into film. Griffith auditioned them by shooting a revolver over their heads to see how they reacted. When they panicked appealingly, he hired them at $5 a week each.
By 1930, Gish was getting $1 million for a six-picture deal. But talkies had arrived—and with them a wave of new, more overtly sexy actresses. Gish opted for the stage, not returning to Hollywood until 1943, by which time she was no longer a leading lady.
The actress never married, explaining, “I have always been much too busy to make a good wife.” Indeed, Gish, who won an honorary Oscar in 1970, was still making movies as recently as 1987. That year she starred in The Whales of August with Bette Davis, who reportedly insisted on top billing. “Oh, dear, I don’t care what they do,” said Gish. “Its the work I love, not the glory. In the end, Gish got a deservedly good bit of both.
Keeler: She gave musicals their high-kicking start
“You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Warner Baxter told her in that quintessential backstage musical, 42nd Street (1933). And that, by dint of sheer eagerness-to-please. is exactly what the real-life Ruby Keeler did. The Depression-era ingenue tap-danced on the top of taxis and typewriter keys and sang such songs as “I’m a Latin from Manhattan”—earnestly and often tentatively, but always with extraordinary charm. “She had inimitable style,” said Ginger Rogers of Keeler, who died of kidney cancer at 82 in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Feb. 28.
Keeler’s movie debut in 42nd Street led to starring roles in a siring of lavish musicals, including Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade (1933). She and Dick Powell, her frequent costar, easily ranked as one of the decade’s premier screen couples. But tastes for fabulous froth waned, and in 1941, Keeler retired. “In my day,” she once said, “musicals didn’t gel better—they just got bigger.”
Keeler’s own story had a rags-to-riches theme. The daughter of a truck driver, she was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, but was raised with her five siblings in a New York City tenement. She had scant dance training until she was 13. but soon after got a chorus job in a George M. Cohan show and went on to hoof it up in speakeasies. Florenz Ziegleld cast her in his 1928 Broadway romp Whoopee.
Keeler never made it to opening night, though, leaving instead to become the fourth wife of Al Jolson, 24 years her senior. Theirs seemed a storybook romance: Once, during another Ziegleld show in which Keeler starred, Jolson got up from his seat in the audience to serenade her. But the marriage, during which they adopted a son, ended in 1940 after 11 years. In 1941, Keeler married real estate broker John Homer Lowe, with whom she had three daughters and a son—and the non-showbiz life she craved. She even kepi her fame a secret from her kids. Says Keeler’s oldest daughter, Theresa Hall, 49: “We just thought everybody’s mom tap-danced in the kitchen.”
Two years after Lowe died, Keeler, then 60, ended her 30-year retirement to make a triumphant return to Broadway in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette. “She was very humble,” says Nanette costar Helen Gallagher, who recalls how Keeler’s eyes teared up on opening night. “It never really dawned on her that people would remember.”