When it comes to higher education these days, the inmates are truly running the asylum.
The latest example is from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Ohio-born Lillian Gish, one of the most consequential actresses in movie history, left both money and her papers to the University when she died in 1993 at the age of 99. The university’s theater was named in her honor (as well as her younger sister, Dorothy, who was also an actress).
If anyone deserves to have a theater named for her, it is Lillian Gish. Her film career lasted 75 year and ranged from short films in 1912 to The Whales of August in 1987 (co-starring another trouper, Bette Davis). Here’s what “allmovie.com” has to say about her:
*Lillian Gish is considered the movie industry’s first true actress. A pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques, she was the first star to recognize the many crucial differences between acting for the stage and acting for the screen, and while her contemporaries painted their performances in broad, dramatic strokes, Gish delivered finely etched, nuanced turns carrying a stunning emotional impact. While by no means the biggest or most popular actress of the silent era, she was the most gifted, her seeming waiflike frailty masking unparalleled reserves of physical and spiritual strength. More than any other early star, she fought to earn film recognition as a true art form, and her achievements remain the standard against which those of all other actors are measured.
Now Gish’s name has been stripped from the theater. Why? Because she starred, 104 years ago, in D. W. Griffith’s epochal 1915 film The Birth of a Nation.
The film was innovative in many ways. It was the first true Hollywood epic, running three hours and introducing many soon-standard techniques. It was also deeply racist, even by the standards of 1915. (It was the first movie ever shown in the White House and, surely, was approved of by the thoroughly racist Woodrow Wilson.) The NAACP tried unsuccessfully to get it banned. Regardless it was a huge commercial success, the highest grossing movie of the silent era.
There is no evidence that Lillian Gish was herself racist. It might be noted that, having no children, she left most of her multi-million-dollar estate to establish the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, to be given to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Spike Lee is among the award’s recipients.
Regardless, students declared themselves “uncomfortable” with the theater’s name, and the Bowling Green State University promptly caved.
This latter-day iconoclasm is not limited to academia, of course. The statue of Kate Smith that had stood in front of the stadium where the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team plays was removed this April because in 1931 she had recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Are Born.” Her rendition of “God Bless America” is also no longer played during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium for the same reason. But that song is not racist at all, it is satirical. If you want proof of that, just consider that Paul Robeson also recorded it and he can hardly be accused of racism.
When is somebody, anybody, in authority going to say, “Grow up, already.”