Picture Play Magazine August 1920 Vol. XII No.6
The Filming of “Way Down East”
For six months D. W. Griffith has been at work on what promises to be another of his monumental productions. The following is an impression of the immensity of the undertaking, and of the peculiar method by which the dean of directors works.
By Charles Gatchell
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 been a monument to the success of a multimillionaire, as distinctively the last word in dwellings of its kind as the Woolworth Building and tower was the last word in its type of city architecture. On this same estate, D. W. Griffith is now completing 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 prices, of the great stage successes of former days, and of their transformation, by amazing expenditures of time and care and money into plays for the screen. The play in question is “Way Down East,” a vehicle well chosen for such an endeavor, for the record of its phenomenal run still stands unbeaten by any similar stage production, and the purchase price of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for the screen rights stands, at this writing, as the top figure for such a transaction. Impressive as this figure is, the story of its filming is, to me, even more impressive. I shall not attempt to tell the entire story of this undertaking, but I am going to endeavor to show something of the infinite pains with which the work is being done by the impressions of a single day spent at the Griffith studio.
It was a day set apart for work on interior scenes, which were to be filmed on the set representing the dining room and kitchen in the old New England home of the Bartlett family.
The set, which stood in the center of the spacious studio, was, to all appearances, complete to the last finishing touch. The fire-stained pots and kettles hung above the charred logs that lay across the andirons. All the rustic properties from the Seth Thomas clock to the farmer’s almanac had been carefully put in place as indicated on the detailed sketch. Twelve of these sketches had been made, from which but one was to be chosen ; twelve finished pieces of work, each a different design, combining, together, all of the most characteristic bits of home atmosphere which Mr. Griffith’s art director, an Oxford-trained authority on architecture and design, had found in a trip through New England. I was later to learn that before this set finally had been decided upon as satisfactory, four other sets previously had been built and torn down. Any one accustomed to the methods of other producers would have concluded, from the appearance of the studio, that everything was ready for action. From overhead, the set was bathed in the diffused light of the Kliegs. Through the open doorway at the right entrance came a flood of yellow sunshine thrown by that marvelous invention, the sun-ray arc, whose beams reproduce so literally those from which they take their name that if they shine upon you for long you will be burned as you would be by midsummer sunshine. Standing in place, ready for the long interior shots, were the two motion-picture cameras, manned by the camera men and their assistants, while nearby was stationed the “still” photographer with his big bellows camera.
As a final indication that all was in readiness for action, Mr. 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 studio orchestra, for no particular reason was softly playing “Turkey in the Straw,” to which Martha Perkins, a prim and severe-looking New England spinster, was executing, with grotesque solemness, a very creditable, though strangely incongruous, buck-and-wing shuffle. The atmosphere of the entire studio was that of a highly trained organization, ready to spring to instant action, but resigned to await the order, forever, if need 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 mistreated, 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 coziness. 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 criticized, 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. “This business of getting the exact pictorial effect is of the greatest importance,” he said when at last he left off, and walked over to where I had stood watching him work. “And it might interest you to know that I believe that to be a matter to which the average dramatic critic who is sent out to review pictures is somewhat blind. “Your dramatic critic obviously doesn’t pay much attention to stage pictures,” he went on, speaking earnestly and with emphasis. “In the spoken drama the pictures are only incidental. At the best they are poor reproductions of nature, mere backgrounds which may even be dispensed with. So your critic devotes his attention—and rightly so—to the play—the drama—the story, if you will.
“But a moving-picture production is a different thing. It lacks the chief element of the stage play—the spoken word. It is—or should be—as its very name implies, a series of wonderful moving pictures. The values you see are completely reversed. But does your dramatic critic recognize that? Usually he does not. He comes and views our work with but one of his two eyes. He looks upon it from the same point of view from which he considers a stage play.
“Take, for example, my picture, ‘The Idol Dancer.’ ” There was a note of impatience in his voice. “We went to such great trouble and expense to reproduce a certain phase of nature and of life, and I think we succeeded in our attempt. But the reviewers, many of them, dismissed that succession of beautiful screen paintings with a word, and spoke disparagingly of the story. Perhaps the story was not unusual, perhaps it was slight. Should they, on that account, dismiss the entire production as of little consequence?” Moved by the eloquence of the Griffith argument, I shook my head in mute agreement—though I could not help thinking, at the same time, that I had heard a good many persons who were not dramatic critics speak disparagingly of “The Idol Dancer” and many another production, finely wrought from a pictorial standpoint, because the story had not satisfied them. But I was of no mind to argue the matter; moreover, I felt, at least, respectfully inclined toward this point of view, which, it occurred to me, I had never given much consideration. “For myself,” Griffith went on, after a moment’s pause, “I hold that if we but reproduce beautifully one single effect of the movement of the wind upon the water, the swaying branches of a tree, or even an etching on the screen of the wrinkled face of an old man in the shadows, we have done something that the stage, at its best, cannot do, and something which, in itself, is an artistic achievement. “I do not mean to disparage in the least the value of a good story,” he added, “I merely offer a protest against the ignoring of every other phase of a production by some of our reviewers. Do I make myself clear ?” he concluded abruptly, with a smile and a whimsical bow, as though apologizing for having delivered so serious a lecture.
I replied that he did, and it occurred to me that what he had said was worth setting down and remembering, as a means of understanding better what Griffith is striving to attain in the making of a picture. “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 to-day, had its former owner’s dream materialized. This rambling old mansion connects with the studio proper ; it is used for dressing rooms, and by the executive and scenario staffs. The rehearsal was to be held in the former state dining room of the late magnate, a magnificent room overlooking the sparkling waters of the Sound, its massive walls hung with dark, rich, hand-tooled leather, and its ceiling decorated by carved beams brought from Europe. And there, where groups of men representing the wealth of the nation had often gathered to dine, a company of actors ranged themselves about an imaginary table, prepared to enact a dinner scene in a humble, old-fashioned country home. They were far from being humble folk, though, these actors.
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, two of the regular Griffith players who have the principal roles, on the completion of this production are to begin separate starring engagements with salaries that will place them in the first rank of featured screen players. Creighton Hale, who plays a character part, has been a wellknown star. And the other members of the cast, who were engaged solely for this production, had been chosen with more care than the furnishings of the famous room in which they had gathered. ccustomed as I was by this time to the convincing evidence of the infinite pains which were being taken in this production, it hardly seemed credible—though I was assured of this by Mr. Griffith’s personal aid—that a list of nearly one hundred actors had been considered in the selection of the man who was to play the part of Lennox Sanderson, the villain of the piece, and that before the part had finally been given to Lowell Sherman — who is playing a similar role in “The Sign on the Door,” an all-year Broadway stage success—twenty-eight other actors had actually been tried out. 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, each expression, each gesture was done over, time after time, to give everything its proper relative value and emphasis in perfecting the effect, the feeling, which Griffith had in mind, and toward which he was patiently striving.
He was like a composer who, having written a piece of music, was going over the score, indicating the accents, the tempo, the mood of expression. “I want this scene to he 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 skillfully to play upon the emotions, the feelings, of an audience. Luncheon followed the rehearsal. It was a leisurely sort of “family affair,” quite in keeping with the general atmosphere of the studio. I should like to visit the Griffith studio often, just to join the company at luncheon. I sat” at a small table with Mr. Griffith’s personal aid and listened to a recital of incidents and figures concerning the filming of “Way Down East,” which would be almost unbelievable were they not backed up by the knowledge of Griffith’s former undertakings. “This picture,” said my host, “is Mr. Griffith’s first personal production for the United Artists, and, of course, we hope to see it mark another step in the development of motion pictures, as so many of Mr. Griffith’s pictures have done in the past—though, of course, the proof of the puddding is in the eating,” he added hastily, as he laid own his fork, and solemnly knocked on the underside of the table. “But if effort counts for anything ” He paused for a moment. “No one not intimately connected with this production can really appreciate the effort that is being expended on it ; yet, perhaps I can give you a tabloid impression of the mere hugeness of the undertaking. “Already more time has elapsed since we began in January than was spent on any Griffith production since ‘Hearts of the World,’ and even more time than on that one if you liminate the months spent on the battlefields of France. Yet the picture is by no means near completion. It will not be finished before midsummer.” lie paused, while I gulped that impressive statement down with a swallow of coffee.
“Our vouchers show,” he went on, “that scouts traveled six thousand miles in the mere preliminary work of obtaining photographs of New England life. Pictures of every sort were taken, including photographs of about four hundred New England homes. “Eve no idea of how many scenes will appear in the completed production, but for the interior scenes alone forty-four different sets will be used. There were three, you may recall, in the stage version. “Up to date two hundred and ten reels of film have been exposed, and the greatest number of times that any one scene has been taken is only thirty-one.” He said this as though it were a mere commonplace to photograph one scene thirty-one times. “But none of the really important close-ups have been taken yet,” he added. “Those always require much more patient effort in order to get a perfect result.”
“And the cost?” I inquired feebly. “Oh, six hundred and fifty thousand dollars, according to the present budget,” he replied, as though that were the least important item. Luncheon finished, 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 etherial 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 as severe as what we went through. Some days it was so cold that the cameras froze, and we had to stop work. We were out in blizzards for hours until, some nights, it was hours and hours before I felt really warm, though I was home early in the evening.” 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. I shall be interested in seeing “Way Down East,” interested in seeing what the reviewers say about it, and even more interested in seeing whether or not it will take its place as another of the Griffith milestones along the march of progress of the motion picture. For in predicting that it will be a monumental work, I do not mean to prophesy that it will mark a distinct step in picture making as did “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms.” That remains to be seen. But it must be obvious to any one who has read this account, that as an example of the present phase of frenzied scrambling and high bidding for popular plays and novels, to be turned into lavishly produced and sensationally exploited pictures, this production of “Way Down East” must tower above most, if not – all similar endeavors, at least as a huge undertaking. A strange undertaking, in a way, too ; strange that such an attempt should be made to make a monumental thing out of this simple, homely play ; it seems almost as incongruous as though some one were to try to develop “The Old Oaken Bucket” into a grand opera. But there is something splendidly audacious about these big undertakings of Griffith, about every one of them. He is a very canny combination of showman and artist combined. 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.