- “WAY DOWN EAST”
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of ‘Life and Lillian Gish’, by Albert Bigelow Paine
Griffith now began work on his greatest melodrama. “Way Down East” had been successful as a book and a play, and was precisely the sort of thing he could do best. From William A. Brady, for a large sum, he secured the picture rights, and plunged into production. There were to be two great outdoor scenes: a blizzard, in which the heroine, who has been inveigled into a mock marriage—and is, therefore, under the New England code, fallen and outcast—is lost; and the frozen river, which, blinded and desperate, she reaches, to be carried to the falls on a cake of ice. There was very little that was artificial about such scenes, in that day: the blizzard had to be a real one, the ice, real ice—most of it, at any rate. Griffith began rehearsing some scenes at Claridge’s Hotel, in New York, continuing steadily for eight weeks; but all the time there was an order that in case of a blizzard, night or day, all hands were to report at the Mamaroneck studio. Lillian had taken Stanford White’s house on Orienta Point. Reading the play, she knew it was going to be an endurance test, and went into training for it. Cold baths, walks in the cold against the wind, exercises … she had faith in her body being equal to any emergency, if prepared for it. In a magazine article, a few years later, she wrote:
The memorable day of March 6th arrived, and with it a snow-storm and a ninety-mile-an-hour gale. As I was living at Mamaroneck, near the studio, I quickly reported, and was made up as Anna Moore, ready but not eager for the work to be done. The scene to be taken was the one just after the irate Squire Bartlett turns Anna out of the house into the storm. Dazed and all but frozen, she wanders about through the snow, and finally to the river. The Griffith studio was on a point or arm well out in Long Island Sound. The wind swept this narrow strip with great fury. The cameras had their backs to the gale. She had to face it.
She had been out only a short time when her face became caked with snow. Around her eyes this would melt—her lashes became small icicles. Griffith wanted this, and brought the cameras up close. Her lids were so heavy she could scarcely keep them open. No need of spectacular “falls.” The difficulty was to keep her feet. She was beaten back, flung about like a toy. Her face became drawn and twisted, almost out of human semblance. When she could stand no more, and was half-unconscious, they would pull her back to the studio on a little sled and give her hot tea. A brief rest and back to the gale. Griffith had invested a large sum in the picture, and she must make good. One could not count on another blizzard that season. Harry Carr writes:
That blizzard scene in “Way Down East” was real. It was taken in the most God-awful blizzard I ever saw. Three men lay flat to hold the legs of each camera. I went out four times, in order to be a hero, but sneaked back suffocated and half dead. Lillian stuck out there in front of the cameras. D. W. would ask her if she could stand it, and she would nod. The icicles hung from her lashes, and her face was blue. When the last shot was made, they had to carry her to the studio. A week or two later, they were at White River Junction. Vermont, for the ice scenes. Griffith took a good many of his company, and they put up at an old-fashioned hotel, a place of hospitality and good food. White River Junction is at the confluence of the White and the Connecticut rivers. There is no fall there, but the current moves at the rate of six miles an hour, and the water is deep. The ice was from twelve to sixteen inches thick, and a good-sized piece of it made a fairly safe craft, but it was wet and slippery, and very cold. It was frozen solid when they arrived; had to be sawed and dynamited, to get pieces for the floating scene. Lillian conceived the idea of letting her hand and hair drag in the water. It was effective, but her hand became frosted; the chances of pneumonia increased. To the writer, recently, Richard Barthelmess, who had the star part opposite Lillian, said:
“Not once, but twenty times a day, for two weeks, Lillian floated down on a cake of ice, and I made my way to her, stepping from one cake to another, to rescue her. I had on a heavy fur coat, and if I had slipped, or if one of the cakes had cracked and let me through, my chances would not have been good. As for Lillian, why she did not get pneumonia, I still can’t understand. She has a wonderful constitution. Before we started, Griffith had us insured against accident, and sickness.
Lillian, frail as she looked, was the only one of the company who passed one hundred percent perfect—condition and health.
“No accidents happened: The story that I missed a signal and did not reach Lillian in time, and that she came near going over the falls, would indicate that she made the float on the ice-cake but once. As I say, she made it numberless times, and there were no falls. Lillian was never nervous, and never afraid. I don’t think either of us thought of anything serious happening, though when I was carrying her, stepping from one ice-cake to another, we might easily have slipped in. I would not make that picture again for any money that a producer would be willing to pay for it.”
[Illustration: “ANNA MOORE”]
At the end of the ice scene, there is an instant when the cake, at the brink of a fall, seems to start over, just as Barthelmess, carrying Lillian, steps from it to another, and another, half slipping in before he reaches the bank.
The critical moment at the brink of the fall was made in summer-time, at Winchell Smith’s farm, near Farmington, Connecticut. The ice-cakes herewere painted blocks of wood, or boxes, and were attached to piano wire. There was a real fall of fifteen feet at this place, and once, a carpenter went over and was considerably damaged. In the picture, as shown, Niagara was blended into this fall, with startling effect. Barthelmess remembers that Lillian kept mostly to herself. She took her work very seriously—too much so, in the opinion of her associates. But once there was a barn-dance at the hotel, in which she joined; and once she and Barthelmess drove over to Dartmouth College, not far distant, with Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Clifton, to a dinner given them by Barthelmess’s fraternity. After dinner, they heard a great tramp, tramp, and someone said to Lillian: “It’s the college boys, coming to kidnap you.” They sometimes did such things, for a lark. But they only wanted to pay their respects. They gathered outside the window, which Mr. Clifton opened, and both Lillian and Barthelmess spoke to them through it.
The summer scenes of “Way Down East” were made at Farmington and at the Mamaroneck studio. Griffith had selected a fine cast, among them Lowell Sherman, the villain; Burr McIntosh, as Squire Bartlett; Kate Bruce, his wife; Mary Hay, their niece; and Vivia Ogden, the village gossip. The scene where Squire Bartlett drives Anna Moore from his home, was realistic in its harshness, and poor Burr McIntosh, a sweet soul who long before had played Taffy in “Trilby,” and who loved Lillian dearly, could never get over having been obliged to turn her out into the storm.
Often, in after years, he begged her to forgive him.
A few minor incidents, connected with the making of “Way Down East,” may be recalled: Griffith had spent a great sum of money for the rights—$275,000, it is said—and was spending a great many more thousands producing it. He was naturally on a good deal of a tension. All were working to the limit of their strength, but they could not hold the pitch indefinitely. When Barthelmess, who is short, had to stand on a two-inch piece of board, to cope on terms of equality with Lowell Sherman, Sherman, who was a trained actor of the stage, could, and did, make invisible side remarks which made Barthelmess laugh. Whereupon, Griffith raged at the waste of time and film, and everybody was sorry, the villain penitent. “Stop that laughing! Turn around and face the camera,” were sharp admonitions perpetuated by a right-about-face in the picture to this day.
It was harsh in form, rather than by intention. They did not resent these scoldings. They believed in Griffith, knew something of his problems, wanted him to make good. There was one scene during which Griffith had no word to offer—the scene in which Anna Moore (Lillian) baptizes her dying child. Harry Carr writes:
The only time I ever saw a stage-hand cry was in the baptism scene in “Way Down East.” It was made in a boxed-off corner, with only D. W., Lillian, the camera-man, a stage-hand and myself there.
Everybody cried. It never made the same impression on the screen, because it was necessary to interrupt the action with the sub-titles. You saw her dripping the water on the baby’s head; then a sub-title flashed on, saying: “In the Name of the Father, etc.,” and the spell was broken.
Carr, Lillian and Griffith would sit far into the night, watching rushes from the scenes made the day before. It was a drowsy occupation—so many of the same thing—and after a day in the open, it was not surprising that Carr should nod. Across a misty plain of sleep, Griffith’s voice would come to him: “Which shot do you like best, Carr?”
It is noticeable in the baptism scene, that Lillian sits relaxed, her knees apart; that when she leaves the house, she walks with a dragging step, as one who had recently experienced the struggle and agonies of child-birth. It has been suggested that she had visited a maternity hospital for these details. When asked, she said:
“No, I did not do that. There was an old woman connected with the studio, who had borne a number of children. She told me all that I needed to know. I learned something, too, from pictures of the Madonna, by old masters. I noticed in all of them that the Madonna sat with her knees apart. I felt that there must be a good reason for painting her in that way.”
She had studied out every detail of the scenes she was to play. Many actors, even among the best, work by another method. They absorb the feeling of the plot, fling themselves into a scene, depending upon an angel to kindle the divine fire. This method never was Lillian’s. To her, the bush never of itself became a burning bush. She lit the fire and tended it. She knew the effect she wanted to produce, and found no research too tedious, no rehearsal too long—no effort too great, to achieve her end.
“Way Down East” was shown in October. Griffith, with Lillian and Barthelmess, were present in person, in the larger cities. It was like a triumphal tour. To present the “world’s darling” in scenes of actual danger, on the screen, and then have her appear in person, was to invite something in the nature of a riot. Reporters indulged in the most extravagant language. And there was a freshet of poetry, and of letters—love-letters, many of them, but letters, also, from persons distinctly worthwhile. David Belasco, whose “most beautiful blonde” verdict had long since gone into the discard, démodé, wrote:
_Dear Lillian Gish_,
It was a revelation to see the little girl who was with me only a few years ago, moving through the pictured version of “Way Down East” with such perfect acting. In this play, you reach the very highest point in action, charm and delightful expression. It made me happy, too, to see how you and your name appeal to the public. Congratulations on a splendid piece of work, and good wishes for your continued success.
John Barrymore went even further, when he wrote:
_My dear Mr. Griffith_:
I have for the second time seen your picture of “Way Down East.” Any personal praise of yourself or your genius regarding the picture I would naturally consider redundant and a little like carrying coals to Newcastle….
I have not the honor of knowing Miss Gish personally and I am afraid that any expression of feeling addressed to her she might consider impertinent. I merely wish to tell you that her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchaining thing that I have ever seen in my life. I remember seeing Duse in this country many years ago, when I imagine she must have been at the height of her powers—also Madame Bernhardt—and for sheer technical brilliancy and great emotional projection, done with an almost uncanny simplicity and sincerity of method, it is great fun and a great stimulant to see an American artist equal, if not surpass, the finest traditions of the theatre.
I wonder if you would be good enough to thank Miss Gish from all of us who are trying to do the best we know how in the theatre.
Yours very sincerely,
Mrs. Gish, who was not a motion-picture enthusiast, made a single comment:
“Well, young lady,” she said, “you’ve set quite a high mark for yourself. How are you going to live up to it?”
[Illustration: THE RIVER SCENE IN “WAY DOWN EAST”]
“Way Down East” was one of the most popular and profitable pictures ever made. Net returns from it ran into the millions. It has had several revivals, and at the present writing (Winter, 1931), is being shown at the Cameo Theatre, New York, “with sound.” Its day, however, is over. Taste has changed—has become what an older generation might regard as unduly sophisticated, depraved. This, with mechanical advancement—the talking feature, for instance—tells the story. A picture of even ten years ago—five years ago—is without a public.
“Way Down East” is a melodrama, but one that at moments rises to considerable heights. Putting aside the spectacular features of the picture—the blizzard and the ice-drift, where melodrama is raised to tenth degree—the scene where the villain reveals to his victim that their marriage was a mockery, the scene where Anna Moore, about to be turned out into the storm, denounces her betrayer, and the baptismal scene, already mentioned, are drama, and, as Lillian Gish gave them, worthy. And, after all, what is, and is not, melodrama—and cheap. Cheap—because it is human. That is why we have invented for ourselves a hereafter—a place away from it all—of rest by green fields and running brooks. Very well, let us agree that the play was cheap, especially the comedy, which was low comedy and about the record in that direction. But if Lillian’s acting was cheap, and poor, then there is very little to be said for any acting, which, God knows, may be true enough, after all!