Way Down East
Cast & Crew
Faced with financial difficulties, innocent country girl Anna Moore goes to visit her rich Boston relatives, the Tremonts, to seek aid. There she becomes the victim of a false marriage to playboy Lennox Sanderson. Deserted by the man she thought was her husband, Anna is left penniless and alone to face the birth of her nameless child. After her mother's death, Anna takes refuge in a rooming house in Belden where her baby dies. Turned out by an unsympathetic landlady, the brokenhearted mother finds employment at the farm of Squire Bartlett, a stern but just man, who believes in a strict accounting for sin. The squire's son David falls in love with Anna, and she is about to accept her new found happiness when Sanderson appears and the squire learns that Anna had lived with him in sin. He turns the girl from the house in a blinding snow storm, and hysterical, she stumbles onto the frozen river where she faints. Her rescue by David from the drifting ice and certain death brings about their union after the squire and his wife learn Anna's true story.
Mrs. David Landau
Mrs. Morgan Belmont
Paul H. Allen
G. W. Bitzer
D. W. Griffith
D. W. Griffith
Anthony Paul Kelly
William F. Peters
Charles O. Seessel
Way Down East
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 clichés. 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. Griffith Director: D. W. Griffith Screenplay: D. W. Griffith and Anthony Paul Kelly from the play by Lottie Blair Parker, Joseph R. Grismer, and William Brady Cinematography: G.W. "Billy" Bitzer Editor: James Smith and Rose Smith Art Direction: Clifford Pember and Charles O. Seessel Cast: 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
Way Down East
Way Down East - Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's 1920 Melodrama WAY DOWN EAST on DVD
To an America about to plunge into The Jazz Age and The Roaring '20s, Way Down East risked instant dismissal as a hopelessly dated Victorian stage vehicle. In her memoir, Gish writes that she and the rest of the Griffith stock company thought he lost his mind when he paid a then-astronomical $175,000 for the rights to what she termed "a horse-and-buggy melodrama." It was, in fact, a huge hit, Griffith's second most profitable, trailing only Birth of a Nation (1915). That rescue-from-the-ice climax surpasses silent film's most eye-widening spectacles the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1925), a real locomotive's plunge into a river in The General (1927), the WW I aerial combat scenes in Wings (1927). That's because the danger is real. The look of terror on Barthelmess's face as he misses his footing on the ice and scrambles to recover, isn't acting.
Barthelmess, bounding from floe to floe in a thick raccoon coat (that weighed him down when it got wet) provides most of the action on the ice. But lying there on it through retake after retake, was a real test of the fragile-looking, but tough-as-iron Gish and her indomitable discipline and will. Many years later, she recalled how letting her hair and hand dangle in the icy Connecticut River at White River Junction in Vermont was her idea, and how the hand that rocked the cradle for Griffith in Intolerance (1916) always ached in cold weather after that extended dip (you can see her barely raise the hand momentarily, to avoid having it crushed by the edge of another floe that bumped up against the one she was on).
As Gish prepared by taking cold baths, exercising and walking in winter gales, the sequence was filmed at three sites. The first, prior to the White River Junction shoot, was at the bleak edge of Griffith's new studio in Mamaroneck. For weeks, Griffith waited for the perfect winter storm. In March, it came, blowing fiercely across Long Island Sound. Cast and crew trudged out, day after day, to film Gish stumbling through the swirling snow down to the water's edge. She was to recall Griffith and Barthelmess, swathed in fur coats (Griffith got frostbite anyway), with technicians working to keep the camera moving, while she waited until the end of each take to knock the icicles from her eyebrows and lashes. Between takes, everybody huddled around fires and Gish was wrapped in a thick coat. Once she fainted, was carried by sled back to the studio. She thawed out and went right back to work. In addition to Mamaroneck and White River Junction, a placid river site in Farmington, Connecticut, was employed (with fake floes) in the spring to fill gaps in the sequence. The steep falls shown in the film was an insert.
Gish brought more than courage and tenacity to Way Down East. She wrote that during the ten weeks of rehearsal she concentrated on ways of making Anna plausible. In the film, her innocent country girl comes to grief when she leaves the rural cottage she shares with her aged mother and goes to the new Babylon Boston! At a rich, condescending relative's, she falls into the clutches of a lounge lizard who stages a mock marriage in order to sleep with her, then confesses his deception when she tells him she's pregnant, and drops her. Deserted, in a rooming house a few towns away, her newborn baby dies in her arms. Recalling her own mother's account of how, in a pinch, she once baptized a baby, Gish improvised her own fictional baby's baptism. To arrive at the right facial expressions to accompany the mother's anguish, Gish visited hospitals and an asylum to study what she called "human emotion off guard," faces lost in their own interior worlds.
For Gish and Griffith, Way Down East was a culmination. Posters advertised "D.W. Griffith's Magnificent Elaboration of 'Way Down East.'" But the ultimate elaborations extended beyond an epochal demonstration of the ways film could outreach stage artifice. Anna represents the ultimate expression of Gish's and pre-WW I America's idealized woman: steadfast, persevering, virginal. It was a persona about to be exchanged for a more modern model. Mary Pickford, America's other prewar movie queen, clung to her America's Sweetheart persona. But the Gishes and Pickfords of the world were under attack by the Gloria Swansons and Clara Bows. The argument can be made that Griffith peaked here, too, delivering a richer, fuller version of his idealized American pastoral worlds, with their accompanying visions of a moral order violated then righted, centered around Gish in A Romance of Happy Valley (1919) and True Heart Susie (1919). Although Griffith invented much of the language of the 20th century's pre-eminent art form, his sentimental Victorian sensibility was rooted in the previous century. He was right about the public's willingness to buy into old-fashioned stories. But part of the reason they did here, apart from the transporting innovations of a new delivery system, was the innate conviction he brought to his "simple story of plain people." The world of Way Down East is a horse-and-buggy world, not a world of motorcars.
It represents a nostalgic idealization and celebration of a rustic, agrarian America, as opposed to the city with its snares values that have never entirely vanished from American popular art. The farm is Eden, the squire, whose kindness is reversed when he learns of Anna's out-of-wedlock baby (while the man who impregnated her is an honored guest at the table for which Anna works as serving girl!), is a stern Old Testament patriarch. Here's the source of the much-parodied gesture of the judgmental father figure opening the door to the blizzard, pointing his finger into it and condemningly trumpeting, "Out!"
It is not difficult to imagine him as a Griffith surrogate, making all the big decisions. Certainly, Griffith's big decisions here were, literally, right on the money. Like so many cinematic visionaries, Griffith was much better at handling films than money. Like the horseplayer he was, he gambled on big wins to get him past his perpetual financial shortfall. Way Down East was a big win, literally and figuratively bringing home many of the core themes in the Griffith oeuvre, more charmingly and less ponderously than on many other occasions, although there is more than a surfeit of rustic humor involving bumbling yokel types that were old when Shakespeare used them in A Midsummer Night's Dream, right down to the local Dogberry constable.
Ironically, the actor playing the Squire/Griffith figure in the film, Burr McIntosh, was recalled by Gish as a kindly, gentle man who apologized repeatedly to Gish for having to address her so harshly. Conversely, Lowell Sherman, who plays the heartless society playboy who seduces and abandons Anna, went on to become a successful director and an actor who specialized in sleek cads. One original cast member who didn't go on was Clarine Seymour, an up-and-coming Griffith find, cast as the girl Barthelmess's farmboy was being pushed to marry. She died at 21 of complications following intestinal surgery. Her place was taken by Mary Hay, a dancer, whose vivacious way of moving adds to the film's vibrancy level. Evidently, Barthelmess thought so, too. He doesn't marry her in the film. He did in real life. Gish never married anyone. Ironically, when Griffith tried to insure his stars, only Gish passed the insurance company's medical exam. Never has steel looked more delicate.
Look carefully at Kino's exemplary release of the recent Museum of Modern Art restoration, dutifully tinted and 149 minutes long, with missing bits noted and in some cases covered by stills, and you can spot an unbilled Norma Shearer in the film's barn dance sequence. The DVD extras include -- as well they should -- a brief clip from the short 1903 Edison film of Griffith's inspiration and departure point for Anna's icebound woe, the Eliza scene from a primitive, stagy-looking Uncle Tom's Cabin, directed by Edwin S. Porter, of Great Train Robbery fame.
For more information about Way Down East, visit Kino International.To order Way Down East, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jay Carr
Way Down East - Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's 1920 Melodrama WAY DOWN EAST on DVD
Norma Shearer has a bit part in one scene.
The waterfall seen in long shot at the climax is Niagara Falls, a site unrelated to, and far from, where the ice floe rescue scenes were shot.
The ice floes seen at the climax drifting above and going over the waterfall were actually wood constructions, as the scene was shot out of season. The waterfall itself was only a few feet high, going no further down than what is seen at the bottom of the film frame.
The scenes on the ice flows were not only very dangerous to film, but for at least for Lillian Gish, they had lasting ill effects. Until the day she died, her left hand was somewhat impaired, due to the extended filming where her hand was in the icy water.
Following the opening title card and a title for D. W. Griffith's credit, the following statement appears: "A simple story of plain people." Before the story begins, the following written prologue is presented: "Since the beginning of time, man has been polygamous-even the saints of Biblical history-but today a better ideal is growing-an ideal of one man for one woman. Today woman brought up from childhood to expect one constant mate possibly suffers more than at any period in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man reached this high standard-except perhaps in theory." A brief written statement reading: "A remote village in New England some few years ago" appears as the action begins.
The play Way Down East was based on a play by Parker entitled Annie Laurie which had been produced in Chicago in 1897. D. W. Griffith reportedly paid a record sum of $175,000 to William Brady for the rights to Way Down East which initially was to be made into a film by Brady's own company. Burr McIntosh played the role of Squire Bartlett in the Broadway production of Way Down East.
The film was produced at the D. W. Griffith studio in Mamaroneck, Long Island. Some scenes were shot at White River Junction, VT. According to modern sources, Elmer Clifton directed some of these scenes; Leigh Smith and Herbert Sutch assisted in the production of these scenes and Lillian Gish's gowns were designed by Madame Lisette. The role of Kate Brewster was originally portrayed by Clarine Seymour, but Seymour died during the film's production and no footgage of her appears in the completed version.
Way Down East was originally released on a road show basis with twenty companies, including symphonic orchestras and effects touring the first class theaters in the U.S. The film was shown in two parts with an intermission. Gish appeared in some performances in a staged prologue. Subsequent to the road show release, the film was released nationally by United Artists. Richard Barthelmess and Mary Hay married subsequent to the production of this film. According to modern sources, the climactic ice floe scene was shot at Orient Point, Long Island. The film was re-released in 1931 with synchronized sound added. Twentieth Century-Fox produced a film based on the same source in 1935; it was directed by Henry King and starred Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40).
Released in United States March 1977
Released in United States October 8, 1988
Released in United States September 3, 1920
Released in United States Summer August 21, 1921
Shown at Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy October 8, 1988.
This film was reconstructed in 1988 by the Museum of Modern Art at a cost of $80,000. The process took four years.
Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Treasures from UCLA Archives) March 9-27, 1977.)
Released in United States Summer August 21, 1921
Released in United States September 3, 1920 (Premiered in New York City September 3, 1920.)
Released in United States October 8, 1988 (Shown at Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy October 8, 1988.)