American History/ American Film (1979)
Interpreting the Hollywood Image
- New Expanded Edition
- Edited by John E. O’Connor and Martin A.Jackson
- The Ungar Publishing Company 370 Lexington Avenue New York, NY 10017
The New Woman and Twenties America:
Way Down East (1920)
Lillian Gish lifts her eyes to heaven as she flees across the shifting ice floes. Her performance as Anna dramatized the shifting perception of women in the decade following passage of the women’s suffrage amendment.
One of the best experimenters with the moving picture was David Wark Griffith (1875-1948) who had been making movies since 1907. Indeed, Griffith’s greatest movies, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) were behind him as the decade of the 1920s began. His path-breaking filmic techniques were being widely imitated and applauded, and everyone looked forward to each of his new films with great anticipation. In 1919, he, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin formed United Artists to distribute their independently produced films. The 1920s did not prove to be as good to Griffith as the past decade of filmmaking had been. While he continued to be fiercely individualistic, the industry was changing rapidly into a collective business with New York bankers playing a larger role in decision making. Small studios were losing out to the larger ones, and individualists found it harder and harder to obtain the needed financing to launch a major movie project. But that future was not known to Griffith when he decided to follow up his successful 1919 Broken Blossoms with a popular stage play called Way Down East. Griffith bought the theatrical rights from author William A. Brady for a record 175,000 dollars and hired Anthony P. Kelly to write a scenario for the sum of 10,000 dollars. Before Way Down East went into production, therefore, it had already cost Griffith more money than The Birth of a Nation.” Lillian Gish, Griffith’s favorite star and colleague in many movies—including The Birth of a Nation (which brought her stardom).
Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms—had been acting in the theater since childhood. She had joined Griffith’s company in 1912 at the age of sixteen and was the natural choice for the lead in Way Down East. The Griffith-Gish association proved to be immensely successful. Always referring to her as “Miss Lillian,” Griffith found her angelic fragile beauty to be a perfect expression of his view of the ideal woman: strong in adversity but essentially at the mercy of men and their selfishness. Griffith photographed Gish with an arc of light, suggesting a halo, around her face and head. Her delicate sweetness, physical slightness, and vulnerable pose made her the perfect Griffith heroine.
Lillian Gish has said, “I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent, and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.” The evidence suggests that she had more than a little of each. Contemporary critics as well as such recent analysts as Pauline Kael have waxed eloquent about her acting ability, her style, and her magnetic power. Gish’s talents included a quickness in capturing the essence of a character and the ability to survive under difficult circumstances. Though she appeared fragile, she was a very tough woman who survived pernicious anemia in childhood and below-zero weather during the filming of Way Down East.
When given the story of Way Down East, Gish wondered how she was going to make the protagonist believable. “I knew that the whole story depended on my making her plausible.” A serious and thoughtful actress, Gish has said, “To play for the pictures is mainly a matter of the face, and of learning to think inside.” Since she had been working with Griffith for eight years, Gish was accustomed to Griffith’s method and found that he respected her ability and judgment. Griffith described their working relationship as follows: “I give her an outline of what I hope to accomplish and let her work it out her own way. When she gets it, she has something of her own.” Nevertheless, Griffith frequently overrode her interpretation. For example, Griffith prevailed on a reluctant Gish to fix her hair and beautify herself for the final scene of this film despite the fact that the scene occurred after a grueling sequence on an ice float.
The plot of Way Down East is simple enough: a poor and innocent young woman named Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) falls in love with a wealthy scoundrel named Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). To assure her complete submission in an age of strict sexual standards Sanderson convinces Anna to marry him and tricks her into a fraudulent ceremony in which his friend masquerades as minister. Anna becomes pregnant, is abandoned by Sanderson, has the baby in a strange town, loses the child, and is forced to become a domestic worker in order to survive. The farm on which Anna obtains a job is owned by Squire Bartlett (Burr Mcintosh), a stern puritanical man, whose son David (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with her. Without explaining, she tries to dissuade him from declaring his love for her as she can “never marry anyone.” As fortune would have it, Sanderson’s country estate adjoins the Bartlett farm; Anna and Sanderson meet; he tries to convince her to leave, fearing discovery of his rascality; Anna refuses. Eventually, the town gossip reveals the truth of Anna’s past and the Squire banishes her from his house.
Before she leaves, Anna reveals that Sanderson is the culprit and he too is expelled from the Bartlett home. It is snowing outside and Anna roams in the snowstorm until she falls faint on the frozen lake. David braves the storm to find Anna in a search sequence famous for its spectacular photography and film editing. Ice floats on the lake break up and begin carrying Anna toward the rushing waterfall. David pursues her, reaches her, and carries her to safety.
Squire Bartlett forgives Anna and the final scene is of the wedding of David and Anna as well as two other couples. The verisimilitude of the snowstorm scene and of the ice floats produced a most exciting climax to a sentimental movie. Griflith had insisted upon filming the real thing and waited for an authentic Vermont storm before filming. Though the oil sometimes froze in Billy Bitzer’s camera, thus slowing up production, the scene is a marvel of filmmaking. Tension is built and action is sustained throughout.
Lillian Gish noted in her autobiography that her hair froze during the filming of the scene and her hand felt as if it were on flame, an obvious case of frostbite. “To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long.” Richard Barthelmess, the young David, had been a sophomore at nearby Dartmouth College a short time before and invited his classmates to watch the filming of the scene. The subzero weather drove them indoors. Though some critics found Way Down East syrupy and sentimental, the public loved both the melodrama and the exciting conclusion,
The Film Daily declared that the film was “a splendidly treated melodrama rising to the greatest climax ever screened.” and contemporary critic William K. Everson has said that Gish’s performance “was perhaps her very best for Griffith.” Commentator Iris Barry- in 1940 judged Way Down East to have special merits, and considered Gish’s performance as Anna a very convincing portrait.”
Griffith booked the movie into a Broadway theater and charged legitimate theater prices. This was an unusual distribution procedure for that time, but it had worked for The Birth of a Nation. Way Down East wound up playing on Broadway for a year and a half. Griffith also opened the film on a road-show basis, playing it in a small number of major theaters rather than lower-priced neighborhood houses. Despite the high cost of production the film made millions for United Artists, and eventually became Griffith’s second biggest box-office success.
Why the tremendous popular success of a rather standard melodrama? Surely the story line was unspectacular and though Gish and her supporting actors did a credible job, the material does not allow for great dramatic acting. Neither could the spectacular photography in the concluding moments of the ninety-minute film account for its great success. I would submit that its popular acceptance was based upon the effective way in which the predictable melodramatic material was presented. Lillian Gish became Every-woman in Way Down East. Popular cultural historians have always noted, with some degree of awe, the incredible success of melodrama in every form, be it novel, movie, or television. Melodrama, the exaggeration of dramatic material, sometimes in absurd ways, has always appealed to female audiences. Its plot is always based upon the domestic scene, the woman is the central character, and self-sacrifice and suffering often appear as the woman’s fate. Though the particulars change over time, the essence of the abused woman always remains at the heart of melodrama. Further, the heroine is usually an ordinary woman, not unlike her female audience.
Thwarted love, seduction and abandonment, or a lover’s betrayal generally constitute the major plot of melodrama. Thus, women who saw Way Down East either as a play or a movie could respond to the self-sacrificing heroine Anna Moore. Way Down East fits into this archetypal melodramatic pattern, though it takes on something of a nostalgic quality since it is set in a rural scene. The 1920 audience was an urban one and the heroine’s fate was thus acted out in a different setting, though the possibilities for melodrama still existed. As Griffith suggested in the opening note, men are not yet monogamous, and so women continue to suffer; they have no choice. The story, we are told in a prologue, is “A Simple Story of Plain People,” just like you and me, the members of the audience. Men and women enter adult relationships but the woman is always at a distinct disadvantage. She seeks marriage, the expected state for all adult women—even the flapper—but is thereby subject to male deception and promiscuity. Her fate is to suffer and to endure. The sexual double standard had not yet been completely demolished. Surely female audiences identified with this theme, knowing of personal experiences when they too had to suffer silently, compromise their wishes, and sublimate their needs to those of husband and family. Though most women’s marriages were legitimate, not mock ones like Anna Moore’s to Lennox Sanderson, the theme of pain and sacrifice in married life was a universal one.
Griffith introduces the segment before Anna’s confinement with the screen title: “Maternity is Woman’s Gethsemane.” Pregnancy and motherhood become woman’s unique experience, burden, and pain. It is her agony, as well as the sign to the world of immorality, if the mother is without a husband. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (Gish played Hester Prynne in a fine version of the story a few years later) offers a literary discussion of the same theme. Griffith clearly shows his sympathy for Anna by highlighting her as an innocent victim of male sexuality. He also distinguishes between the good and bad man, David and Sanderson, so that when Sanderson tells Anna at one point that men are expected to sow their wild oats, the audience is led to believe that this is not the accepted view or behavior of all men.
Way Down East is a good melodrama in that we empathize with the innocent Anna, commiserate with her suffering, and rejoice at her final vindication. Audiences are treated to a fallen woman who is not really fallen. Her innocence has not been truly tarnished. Her purity and goodness still intact, Anna marries innocent David at the film’s end. Their future will be bright and sure as they are simple and good people. The virginal Mary has not really lost her virginity; she does not descend into the role of the temptress Eve. The villain Sanderson is punished and goodness triumphs. Thus, the melodrama, filled with trials and tribulations, ends happily with the ultimate fantasy being fulfilled: goodness does prevail on earth and the pure do achieve happiness. Society can forgive, overlook supposed sins, and include in the fold the mistakenly rejected. Melodrama allowed women the opportunity to cry and clap, to feel sadness and happiness, and to leave the movie theater happy in the knowledge that Lillian Gish, Anna Moore, triumphed in the end.
Another theme of the movie that would be lost on future audiences but which had profound meaning in the 1920s, was the tension between country and city. In Griffith’s movie, the pastoral existence of the farmer Bartletts contrasted sharply with the corrupt city life of Sanderson and Anna’s city cousins. America was still close enough to its agricultural past and country life in 1920 to appreciate Way Down East. Though the population was quickly shifting to the city, the nation’s values remained rural ones.
While the audiences of 1920 could still believe in an innocent young woman being deceived into marriage with an unscrupulous man, when Way Down East was reissued with a synchronized musical score and sound in 1931, New York Times film critic Andre Sennwald found that the film had lost its power “because the cards are too carefully stacked against winsome Anna Moore.” Audiences of 1931 were more experienced in radio and movie melodrama and had become accustomed to more sophisticated treatments of women’s seduction. Sennwald reported that the audiences snickered when David valiantly searches for Anna across the ice. What had appeared as extraordinary film editing in 1920 seemed unsophisticated and contrived a decade later, a decade that had witnessed great advances in film adventure stories and melodramas.
Way Dovm East was remade in 1935 with Rochelle Hudson playing Anna and Henry Fonda in the David role. The New York Times reviewer noted a subtle shift in moral values in this version. Though the Hays office, with its censorship code, was already in effect, Mrs. Bartlett suggests to her stern husband, upon discovering Anna’s plight, that “unlicensed motherhood isn’t nearly the socially embarrassing thing that it was in father’s day.” A more liberal moral code was already evident and the stern Squire Bartlett seemed an anachronism. The ice-chase scene was rendered comically in this version, thus changing the whole tone of the film. The altered thrust of Way Down East and the 1930s audience’s reaction to both versions suggests how much the nation had changed in a decade. The simple tale of simple folk no longer appealed.
Way Down East can be fit into a general iconography of women’s images in film. Throughout the 1910s and into the 1920s, film audiences were exposed to two totally different feminine images: the Girl-Woman and the Bad Girl. In the first of these, the dominant image—the boyish figures of the actresses, the short haircuts, the bouncy step, the youthful pose—all accentuated the young woman as part girl and part woman, all sweet and innocent, yet already suggesting adult sexuality. This Girl-Woman had many variations; three detectable subtypes are the pure and capable young woman who through spirited activity helps to shape the world around her; the pure but helpless victim; and the pure victim who is strong and enduring. In the first subtype, the serial films of Pearl White offered audiences a view of a spunky adventuress who wards off dangerous men, pursues assassins, and always emerges victorious. In twenty episodes of the Perils of Pauline as well as the very successful thirty-six episodes of The Exploits of Elaine, The New Exploits of Elaine, and The Romance of Elaine, Pearl White regaled her audience with exciting adventures. Between 1914 and 1922 all of these serials reached an estimated audience of fifteen million people.-” The filmic Pearl White’s virtue remained intact, but she was an active and vital person, experiencing dangers and excitements usually reserved for men.
The flapper screen roles played by Clara Bow and Joan Crawford also qualify as pure but spirited types. In The Wild Party (1929), Clara Bow plays a flirtatious college girl in love with her professor. She is a tease but never loses her virginity. Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) is also a carefree, rich flapper who dances all night but remains faithful to her one true love. Both the Clara Bow and Joan Crawford characters are energetic leaders who in the movie are admired by young men and women alike. Many of the early flappers, such as Gloria Swanson and Mabel Normand, also always observed society’s laws. They played their roles with warmth and humor; thev were pals, companions to young men, and in love with life. It was their very combination of purity and gaiety that made them attractive to both sexes. Mary Pickford’s screen roles best epitomized the second type, the pure but passive victim. In the same year that Way Down East was released, Pickford appeared in Pollyanna as the eternal child. The New York Times critic asked the rhetorical question: When will Mary Pickford grow up? and answered that neither she nor Peter Pan could ever grow up. “When she stops being a child on the screen,” he concluded, “she’ll probably just stop. But that time is a long way off.” Audiences loved seeing thirty-year-old Mary in her golden curls and frilly dresses stand helpless while the hero destroyed the villain. Indeed, when Pickford tried to portray mature women, audiences rejected the product and clamored for their “Mary” pictures. Pickford’s fans never tired of seeing her exposed to danger until at the end she is only just saved by the hero. Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet, two other Griffith actresses, often played the pure and passive type as well.
Lillian Gish’s portrayal of Anna Moore in Way Down East and Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, displayed the third variation of the type: a victim pure of heart who is also strong and enduring, the melodramatic heroine. Gish suffers at the hands of sensual men but she is ultimately resurrected because of her inherent virtue and her indomitable will. This type is more complex and exciting than the second image; it is multidimensional and suggests that women have hidden reserves that are not apparent on the surface. Anna Moore emerges as an admirable woman who transcends society’s view of her; she achieves an heroic stature because of her good works. The woman as survivor, despite ill fate, is an enormously appealing image of women to women. She does not become self-pitying, spiteful, or hostile. She endures and, by so doing, using Faulkner’s phrase, she prevails. In addition to the Girl-Woman image with its subtypes, film audiences were treated to the sophisticated Bad Girl image, the classic Eve, the temptress. Swedish actress Greta Garbo, Polish actress Pola Negri, German actress Marlene Dietrich, and such Americans as Theda Bara (the renamed Theodosia Goodman of Philadelphia) and Gloria Swanson delighted audiences with their portrayals of decadent women, exotic, world-weary, sexual creatures whose lives revolved around the men in the films. Each actress, of course, created a unique interpretation of the image, some with humor and others with pathos, but all operated within the stereotypical framework of the Eve image. Audiences loved (and still love) seeing naughty foreign women lure American Adams into sin. As long as the temptress is punished at the end of the movie, often by becoming the captive mistress of her Adam, the moral code and the double standard are preserved.
Thus, the American penchant for dualisms is encompassed in these two fundamental views of women: as Girl-Woman (good) or Bad Girl (bad), as Marys or Eves. First presented in all their variations to film audiences during the silent screen era, these filmic images of women have not been altered by filmmakers in the past fifty-eight years. During the 1930s, the woman careerist enjoyed great popularity with such actresses as Katharine Hepburn. Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford playing commercial artists, writers, reporters, lawyers, and businesswomen; however, this type could easily fit into the pure but spirited category as most of these women abandoned career for marriage. Giving up adventure for conventional female roles, they also displayed the playfulness and the easy companionship with men that characterized the flapper films as well as the Pearl White adventures. An important parr of both Rosalind Russell’s and Katharine Hepburn’s appeal to men and women was their Girl-Woman ability to be both spunky and feminine, a buddy and a mate.
In the 1950s, the pure victim image was revitalized in movies starring Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds and, a little later, Annette Funicello and Sandra Dee. The third subtype, the strong sufferer remained the essence of melodrama in the movies and, more recently, on television soap operas. Now, Voyager (1941), Bette Davis’s quintessential tearjerker, shares many qualities with Way Down East, as does Love Story and As the World Turns. The settings, the specific social problems, and the particular female troubles have all changed over time in melodrama, but the themes of woman’s suffering and man’s dominance in determining her life have remained at its core. As already suggested, the Eve image of woman continues to thrive; though Jane Fonda saw a psychiatrist in Klute, she still remained the classic whore. Despite the Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford roles of the 1930s, women characters who convey complex and sophisticated personalities and who do important work are still rare in American film. Independent women who are worthy of respect, and who love and are loved, are only present in the extraordinary movie, one that is long remembered for its exceptional treatment of women. Thus, the filmic images of women developed by D. W. Griffith and the other first-generation filmmakers have continued to define the basic categories for women in American movies.