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Way Down East (1920) deserves its place in cinema history for a variety of reasons and can thus be appreciated on many levels. Not only is the film a compendium of techniques that had been honed into the language of cinema by director D.W. Griffith but it marks a key juncture in Griffith's career. It offers a powerful example of the impact of location work on a film's story, which culminates in a spectacular sequence shot against the most threatening of natural forces. And, the potent performance of star Lillian Gish represents a pinnacle of silent-film acting.
Released in 1920, Way Down East was the first film produced at Griffith's studio in Mamaroneck, New York, located in Westchester County. Just after World War I, studios in Hollywood began to develop practices and systems that would eventually define the industry, but Griffith preferred his autonomy. He purchased Henry Flagler's 28-acre estate to build his own studio on that part of the property known locally as Satan's Toe. Never adept with budgets, Griffith over-extended himself financially, borrowing heavily against future box office returns to produce his films and to construct his studio in Mamaroneck. Though Way Down East proved to be financially successful, it was Griffith's last major hit at the box office, and it did not return enough to make him solvent. The studio went on to produce Orphans of the Storm (1921), several Dorothy Gish vehicles, including Remodeling Her Husband (1920), which was Lillian Gish's only official directorial effort, and a few other titles before it closed in 1925.
A melodrama that Griffith biographer Richard Schickel called "the nearly perfect expression of his spirit and sensibility," Way Down East embodies one of the director's favorite themes--the triumph of rural values and virtues over urban corruption. Gish stars as Anna Moore who hails from "way down east," or that part of Maine that is east of Boston. Anna's sojourn into the city leads to her seduction by society cad Lennox Sanderson, who deserts her once she becomes pregnant. After the baby dies, Anna takes to the road, eventually ending up in rural Maine. The Bartletts, a well-to-do farming family that includes handsome son David, played by Richard Barthelmess, hires Anna as a maid. Local gossips reveal the young girl's secret past to Squire Bartlett, who banishes her from the house just as a fierce winter storm blows up. When David learns of Sanderson's role in Anna's misfortunes, he braves a blizzard and a dangerous chase on an icy river to rescue her.
Gish's interpretation of Anna ranks high among her silent-era performances. Though silent-film acting is by nature broad and obvious compared to contemporary styles, Gish managed to bring subtlety and spontaneity to her performances. The depth of pain in the scene in which Anna baptizes her dying baby will bring most viewers to their knees, while her expression in a later scene when Anna sees another mother's baby is subtle yet heartbreaking. Gish approached acting by understanding the inner life of the character and by keeping her interpretation of emotions simple, particularly during close-ups.
Gish actually thought Griffith had made a serious miscalculation when he purchased the rights to the play Way Down East from producer and co-author William Brady for $175,000 and then paid an additional $7,000 to original playwright Lottie Blair Parker. After all, "this horse-and-buggy story," as she called it, had originated in the Victorian Era and included many scenes considered to be clichs. Griffith may have been attracted to the material because he recognized the moral universe of his childhood in the pastoral background, quaint humor, and plain people. But, he also felt that parts of the story, including the betrayal of a working class girl by an upper-class man and the corrupting influences of the urban world, were still relevant to modern audiences. Considering that the postwar era would find record numbers of women flocking to the cities for both employment and enjoyment, Way Down East may have spoken to the era more than Gish realized. Also, by keeping the original Victorian Era backdrop, viewers might see the old-fashioned tropes and moral values as appropriate to that time, while some--like Griffith--may have eagerly wrapped themselves in the warm nostalgia for an America that had vanished. Most importantly, however, Griffith updated the material by turning it into a cinematic experience.
Shooting on location rooted the characters in an environment that was recognizable and authentic, turning a stagey melodrama into a vivid experience. Real sleigh rides, real barn dances, and a real countryside lent credibility and compensated for the creaky story, while the scenes involving the blizzard and icy river were downright thrilling. Despite the mounting costs of production, Griffith waited for an actual blizzard to shoot the climactic sequence. This meant he paid for the rented equipment even though it was not in use while he was waiting for the season to turn and for the snows to come. Finally, a blizzard raged through Orienta Point, and Griffith and his crew struggled through one day and one night of shooting in the blowing snow.
A large bonfire was built in the hopes of keeping the oil in the camera from freezing. The blaze also provided the actors some warmth from the cold. Gish bore the brunt of the weather because her costume consisted only of a thin black dress and tiny shawl. Her character hobbled through the snow and continually fell into a heap in the giant drifts. Ice actually froze on Gish's eyelashes, which Griffith captured to great effect in close-up. Overcome by the elements, Gish eventually fainted and was carried by sled to shelter.
If Gish and Barthelmess were good sports about shooting during the blizzard, then they were downright heroic for agreeing to do their own stunts for the ice-floe scenes. In this sequence, Anna is out of her mind from exposure and wanders toward the river after the storm, falling unconscious onto an ice floe. She is carried down river toward a steep waterfall. David sees her frail body on the rapidly moving floe and maneuvers across the chunks of ice as they break up and float away. Just as Anna is about to go over the falls, he scoops her up and carries her back to shore. In her skimpy costume, Gish laid stomach-down on the ice floe, with her hand and hair dragging in the cold water. In his biography D.W. Griffith: An American Life, Richard Schickel recounts the actress's claims that her hand became severely frostbitten and caused her pain for the rest of her life. Barthelmess's costume, which was a heavy, full-length fur coat, was considerably warmer but a hindrance for jumping across the ice. On a teetering floe, he fell into the water, making the look of fright on his face very real. Carrying Gish in a heavy, wet fur coat across wobbly ice floes was an adventure he did not anticipate.
The blizzard and river sequence was an example of creative geography through editing, because it was shot on three different occasions in three different locations. The rescue on the ice was actually filmed on two different rivers. The bulk of the ice-floe rescue was shot in early March at White River Junction in Vermont. The river was still frozen solid, so the crew sawed into the ice to create floes and chunks. The shots near the falls just before Anna goes over were filmed during the spring on a river near Farmington, Connecticut. With the ice long since melted, the floes in those shots were constructed of painted plywood but were no less hazardous to navigate.
By the time of Way Down East, Griffith's mastery of the techniques of continuity editing was often imitated but seldom equaled. The film was well served by such techniques as cross-cutting, pacing, and close-ups. In the opening sequence, Anna's unhappy experiences in the city are intercut with scenes of an idyllic life on the Bartlett farm; this comparison between the two worlds sets up the viewer to anticipate and root for her return to the country. During the blizzard and ice-floe sequence, parallel editing between Anna's slog through the storm and David's fight with Sanderson in the sugar camp suggests that his encounter with her tormenter is a delay that is detrimental to Anna, especially when the blizzard scene is punctuated by close-up of the snow and ice on her eyelashes. During the scene on the icy river, Griffith cut down the length of the shots as the rescue intensifies; shorter shots increased the pace and intensified the action. The cutting combined with the inherent danger of the actors doing their own stunts created a suspense that was almost unbearable.
To hedge his bets for success, Griffith penned "A Letter to the People, Whose Servant I Am," in which he described the production hardships and the merits of Way Down East, and released it to the newspapers. What impact the letter had on the box office is unknown, but the movie was a resounding financial and critical success. Many reviewers noted that audiences rose from their chairs during the ice-floe sequence. Way Down East proved to be the last film by D.W. Griffith in which both reviewers and audiences were so captivated.
Producer: D. W. GriffithDirector: D. W. GriffithScreenplay: D. W. Griffith and Anthony Paul Kelly from the play by Lottie Blair Parker, Joseph R. Grismer, and William Brady Cinematography: G.W. "Billy" BitzerEditor: James Smith and Rose SmithArt Direction: Clifford Pember and Charles O. SeesselCast: Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess), Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), Mrs. Bartlett (Kate Bruce), Kate Brewster (Mary Hay), Professor Sterling (Creighton Hale), Maria Poole (Emily Fitzroy), Seth Holcomb (Porter Strong), Constable Rube Whipple (George Neville), Hi Holler (Edgar Nelson), Anna's Mother (Mrs. David Landau), Diana Tremont (Mrs. Morgan Belmont), Martha Perkins (Vivia Ogden)
By Susan Doll