The Picturegoer – September 1921
How “Way Down East” Was Filmed
By Charles Gatchell
D. W. Griffith’s melodramatic picture which reaches British screens this month will add fresh laurels to the producer’s crown. It cost over £100,000 to produce, and £35,000 was paid for the story alone ; but the resulting picture is well worth the expense. On the north shore of Long Island Sound, not far from New York City, there is an estate of sloping lawns shaded by giant elms, on which Henry M Flagler, the former Florida railroad magnate, once planned to have erected what he hoped would be the most beautiful country home in America. It was to have a monument to the success of a multi-millionaire. On this same estate, D. W. Griffith completed last year a film production which, I believe, will be, in its way, a monumental work, the last word in a certain phase through which motion pictures are passing ; a phase which is marked by the purchase, at fabulous price of the great stage success of former days, and of their transformation, by amazing expenditures of tune and care and money, into plays for the screen.
The play in question is ” Way Down East,” a vehicle well chosen for such an endeavour, for the record of its phenomenal run still stands unbeaten by any similar stage production, and the purchase price of £35.000 for the screen rights stands as the top figure for such a transaction. Impressive as this figure is, the story of its filming is even more impressive. I shall not attempt to tell the entire story of this undertaking, but I am going to endeavour to show something of the infinite pains with which the work was done by the impressions of a single day spent at the Griffith studio.
It was a day set for work on interior scenes which were filmed on the set representing the dining room and kitchen in the old New England home ol the Bartlett family. The set, which stood in the centre of the spacious studio, was, to all appearances, complete to the last finishing touch. Standing in place, ready for the long interior shots, were the two motion – picture cameras, manned by the camera-men and their assistants, while near by was stationed the ” still ” photographer with his big bellows camera. As a final indication that all was in readiness for action, D. W. Griffith, who was personally directing the production, had taken his position in the open space between the cameras and the front of the set – a distinctive figure – his rugged height accentuated by the short raincoat which hung, cape-wise, over his broad shoulders, and by the large derby hat which, tipped far back on his head, vaguely suggested the pictures of the Mad Hatter in ” Alice in Wonderland.”
But no command was given to the waiting camera-men. There was no expectant hush, as when a conductor mounts the dais before an orchestra. The members of the cast, fully costumed and made up, knowing the methods of their chief, stood or sat about in little groups as they had for several days, patiently waiting. The atmosphere of the entire studio was that of a highly trained organisation, ready to spring to instant action, but resigned to await the order, for ever, if need to be.
” I don’t quite like that door,” said Griffith, suddenly breaking the silence he had maintained for several minutes. He called for one of the decorators. ” It looks too new ” he explained.
” The edge of it, don’t you know, in a house like this, would be worn down, and the paint darkened near the knob by years of use.” The decorator nodded understandingly and started for his tools.
Be careful not to batter it up any,” Griffith called after him. ” I don’t want anything to look maltreated, but to have just the appearance of long years of careful use.
” Now, how about those chairs ? ” he went on, addressing the art director this time. He walked on to the set, seated himself in a rocker, rose, and returned. ” That chair’s comfortable enough, but it doesn’t look comfortable enough for the effect I want. I want this room to radiate from every last touch the feeling of being homelike—a home of comfort and welcome and cosiness. Let’s get some cushions for the backs of the chairs.”
The art director groaned.
” A hundred dollars’ more time to be charged up while we put them on,” he began. ” But we’ll do it,” he added hastily, as Griffith gave him a look that said, ” Huh—a lot I care about a hundred dollars’ worth of time, or ten hundred dollars’ worth, if I get the result I’m after.”
Now, let’s see,” he went on. ” There’s something lacking—something—I know. It’s flowers ! Oh, Miss Gish, how does the idea of having some flowers on the table or on the mantelpiece strike your feminine taste ? “
Lillian Gish, who has had some experience of her own as a director, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then voiced her approval. By this time several decorators were at work again on the set, making the changes that had been suggested. But Griffith was not yet satisfied. I am not going to attempt the tedious task of recounting in detail the suggestions that followed, but for the rest of the morning—the work had begun at about ten o’clock—one thing after another was criticised, discussed, and debated : Scarcely a detail of the set was overlooked. The floor, it was decided, was a shade too light, and the painters were set to work on it again. The bunches of seed corn were taken down from the ceiling beam on which they had hung, and were tried in almost every possible place from which they could be suspended. The pots in the broad fireplace were rearranged. The figured tablecloth was removed and replaced by a plain white one. And not until the technical staff had received enough instructions to last them until late into the afternoon did Griffith consent to consider the work as even temporarily completed.
“While we’re waiting for the set I am going to hold a rehearsal, and if you care to see it —” Griffith said, with the courtesy and cordiality which is shared by the entire personnel of his studio.
A Griffith rehearsal was something which I had wanted to see for some time, and I followed him and the members of the cast into the old Flagler home, which would not be standing today had its former owner’s dream materialized. The rehearsal was but a variation of the Griffith method which I had previously seen applied to rearranging the details of the set in order to heighten the desired effect, or feeling. This time the action, which the players evidently had rehearsed many times before, was criticized and altered in as minute detail, with the same object in view. Each bit of business was done over time after time.
” I want this scene to be played smoothly — smoothly — smoothly,” he said to Barthelmess and Miss Gish, as’ they were working over a tiny bit of action. And I felt that I was beginning to understand, better than I ever had before, how, through his shadow pictures, he is able so skilfully to play upon the emotions, the feelings, of an audience. Luncheon followed. After which we returned to the studio. But the alterations on the dining-room set were not nearly completed, so, after watching Dorothy Gish work in another part of the studio for a while, I came back and chatted with Lillian, who is as ethereal and appealing in person as she is in shadow.
” I hope,” she said, ” that the snow scenes will be worth the suffering they cost us. I don’t think I ever experienced anything so severe as what we went through. Some days it was so cold that the cameras froze.
She was interrupted by another call for the company to assemble. The workmen had finished the alterations. But the call did not include the camera-men. The scenes which had been worked over so painstakingly in the rehearsal room now were to be rehearsed again—a dress rehearsal, as it were. And, as a ‘bus was just leaving for the station, I thought it best to start back for New York.
There is something splendidly audacious about the big undertakings of Griffith, about every one ol them. He is a very canny combination of showman and artist ; He knows pretty well what type of thing will catch and hold the public interest at any given time, and I have a shrewd idea : that he had his hand on the pulse of the movie –going public when he chose this vehicle for the first of his new series, and decided to “go the limit ” on it. So, without having seen a foot of the finished film, I shall venture one more prophecy that Way Down East in its revival on the screen will repeat the wonderful record which it made on the stage two decades ago. (Charles Gatchell)