Lillian Gish was a star at the beginning and a star at the end, and Ruby Keeler was a star in between, but between them they spanned the life of the American motion picture industry. Keeler died yesterday at 83 of cancer in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and Gish, Saturday in her sleep in New York City, at 99.
Their status as icons of the film world makes them seem contemporaries; actually they stem from different movie generations and represented different sensibilities. That they will linked in obituaries and appreciations across America today is merely a journalistic convenience; each was unique.
Gish, born in 1893, was present at the creation when "Mr. Griffith" -- the movies' original genius D. W. Griffith -- made her the preeminent actress of the silent screen. She and her sister Dorothy had traveled as child actresses beginning at age 5 but got their big break in 1912 when they were introduced to the young filmmaker by another actress -- Mary Pickford.
Griffith immediately saw in Gish something spectacular, and it is a mark of his genius that he understood the ways in which the camera could read and magnify the message in a face. He was in the process of inventing not only the feature movie but the movie star.
Gish's face had an extraordinary spirituality to it. She looked as fragile as an apple blossom just opening in the springtime, with her delicate little uplift of a nose and the hugeness of her eyes and lashes. Her face had a radiance so profound that the camera measured it; in fact, sometimes it amplified it, when Griffith took to photographing Gish slightly out of focus so as to gently sentimentalize her sparkle. The device entered the professional film lexicon as "The Lillian Gish Lens."
"I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role," Gish once said of the image that will remain her icon -- hands delicately clasped, mouth collected into a jot of prim strength and hope, eyes lifted to the heavens. It matched exactly the image of women in those pre-feminist days -- a delicate being to be coddled and protected by men.
Behind the camera, however, nothing could have been further from the truth. Gish was a consummate professional who took pride in her ability to do her own stunts. She never married but instead devoted herself to her career and later to caring first for her mother and later for her younger but more infirm sister Dorothy, who died in 1968. The drama critic George Jean Nathan courted her assiduously for nearly a decade, but could never convince her to marry.
Once called the most beautiful blond in movies, she was not particularly interested in beauty: "I didn't care about beauty," she said. "I wanted to be an actress. When I was in the movies, I didn't care what I looked like, except for that image up there on the screen. I wanted to create beauty when it was necessary; that's an inner thing. But if all you have is a facade, it isn't interesting."
Gish appeared in most of Griffith's films during the years of World War I, including starring in the monumental "Birth of A Nation" (1915). Though its heritage is troubled today because of the bald racism and the terrible sentimentality with which it treated the Ku Klux Klan, the movie was the first big film to approximate the scope and reach of feature films today; it was also the first film to name its players, Gish among them.
Gish's film career saw its halcyon days in the era of the silents, though she was able to adapt neatly enough to talking pictures, a transition many silent stars were unable to achieve. But her string had run out in Hollywood by 1933, and she returned to the stage for an entirely respectable live performance career, including a 66-week run in "Life with Father" in Chicago. She also acted in the classics, ranging from Shakespeare to O'Neill.
In her old age, Gish again became an active and visible motion picture performer, appearing in such films as the 1960 western "The Unforgiven," "The Comedians" and the memorable "Night of the Hunter." As recently as 1986 she won rave reviews for an appearance in "Sweet Liberty" and for "The Whales of August" in 1987.
By contrast, Ruby Keeler wasn't much of an actress. She was a lousy singer and she wasn't even a very good dancer. But she entered show biz legend when she literally went out there a chorus girl and came back a star.
Keeler hit Broadway in the '20s and the movies in the '30s just as the musical comedy was to begin its brief run as the preeminent film form. Her first film -- she literally enacted in the plot the chorus-girl/star transformation that was simultaneously happening in her own life -- was the brilliant Busby Berkeley musical "42nd Street" in 1933. Her active screen career hardly lasted a decade, and the history books aren't kind to her: "She made her small talent go a long way in the musicals of the early thirties," says Leslie Halliwell in his "Halliwell's Film Companion." But the original Variety review, in 1933, got what was special about Keeler in a way that the more studied responses didn't: "Ruby Keeler, as the unknown who comes through and registers hit, is utterly convincing."
There wasn't much that Keeler did brilliantly -- she was tall and gawky, an uncertain actress whose face tended to lock into a tightly constricted mask, and the sad fact of her dancing was that it was a good deal more energetic in its tap-tap-tapping urgency than elegant or even particularly good -- but Berkeley's camera captured her ardency, her love of the theater, her willingness to work so hard to become a star.
It was a new, democratic value in a theater where slick professionalism had always been valued. Keeler was the musical comedy equivalent of all those up-from-the-streets guys who were making their way into American movies at the same time, all, somehow, finding their way to the Warner Bros. studios that ++ so celebrated the city as the bubbling font of creativity and gumption: the Jimmy Cagneys, the Humphrey Bogarts, the Eddie Robinsons. In her way, she stood for the same thing: You deserved anything you could claw your way into.
As it turned out, Berkeley was the perfect director to capture this in her, and her films with him -- besides "42nd Street," "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Footlight Parade" and "Dames" -- were by far her best. Her private life was briefly storied, when she became Al Jolson's third wife when Jolson was the biggest star on Broadway; they were married from 1928 until 1939.