‘Way Down East’ Looks Real Only Because It Is Real (New York Tribune, Sep. 1920)

New York Tribune, Sunday, September 12, 1920

David Griffith confesses ‘Way Down East’ Looks Real Only Because It Is Real

By Harriette Underhill

“Way Down East” was nine months in the filming and costs more than $800.000, but we doubt if these figures impress any one very much. Usually the more a picture costs the less we like it, for vast fortunes are squandered on these huge spectacle things, where all the critics come out the next day and say that it was historically correct, or that it wasn’t historically correct, and that dancing girls in Nero’s time did or did not wear tunics.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (cast and crew)

But “Way Down East” is reassuring because you know that Mr. Griffith did not, could not have spent any of that $850.000 in strings of beads for Nero’s favorite, for palace walls to crumble up later, nor for Roman armies.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Even after you see the picture you wonder what makes it so expensive. Of course, as the young man from Boston who goes to the movies with us says “It is thrillin’, excitin’ and grippin’,” in fact more so that any picture we ever saw, but none of those things makes it a “gorgeous spectacle,” nor puts it in the million dollar class. So we decided to talk to Mr. Griffith and find out all about it. “Way Down East” is a picture every one should see three times: the first time to see how perfect it is in every detail; the second time for the ice scenes and the third time for the ice scenes.

 

The second time we saw it was with the producer himself, and after the three brides had been kissed by their respective husbands and the people had stopped cheering we went up to the office of the Forty-fourth Street Theater to talk it over. Mr. Griffith is one of the persons in whose presence we thrill. The others are Charlie Chaplin and Elsie Ferguson.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

“Will you tell us the truth and will you answer any questions we want to ask about the picture?”

“Yes,” answered the greatest director in the world, “if you don’t ask me something I don’t want you to know.”

“Well,” we said, starting off easy, “what makes ‘Way Down East’ so expensive?”

“Principally the ice.” We gasped as though we had received a dash of cold water in our face.

Way Down East - Vermont
Way Down East – Vermont

“Oh, the ice you had to buy it? Wasn’t it real?” And we had visions of each refrigerator giving up its chunk and of property men dumping them into the river, perhaps a nice peaceful summer river, and all of our illusions were destroyed. We felt as though we had just learned that there was no Santa Claus.

“Oh yes, of course the ice was real – too real. That is why it was so dangerous and cost so much money.”

D.W. Griffith - Ice floe Scenes (Vermont) Way Down East
D.W. Griffith – Ice floe Scenes (Vermont) Way Down East

“And was it so dangerous?” we asked breathlessly, feeling almost as we felt when we watched Lillian Gish hanging off a cake of ice which was floating over the falls and Dick Barthelmess trying to grab her from another pitching cake of ice. “Was it as dangerous as it looked?”

“Well,” began Mr. Griffith, “perhaps not” –

“Was it almost as dangerous as it looked?” we interrupted.

“I guess I can safely say that it was that, all right. Why, you know that was a real river and real ice and real falls and that was really Lillian Gish on the ice.”

Way Down East Icefloe detail X Mamaroneck Arch

“And no doubles and no dummies, honestly? And was that Dick Barthelmess who did all of that ice jumping that would make the most agile Eliza look like a picker? And where they really hanging on the edge of the falls like that and Barthelmess leaping from chunk to chunk with Miss Gish in his arms?”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

“It all happened just as you saw it. There were no doubles and no dummies, but of course it all had to be timed and that is why it took so long and was so expensive. We used five different rivers to get the effect, for after the ice breaks up it disappears very quickly. And we had to build dams to keep the water from flowing too fast and we had to use dynamite to change the course of the river at times, and we had to build bridges for the camera, and sometimes the rivers would rise and sweep away our bridges and our platforms and we had to wait around for a regular storm to come so that Anna Moore could be driven into it.”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

“And how surprised Anna must have been when she found herself out of that storm – the most terrible of her career. No torn up paper and salt drifts there!”

“There were not. Those pictures were taken in a seventy-mile gale with zero weather and all of the icicles on Miss Gish’s face were real icicles. However, I was the only one who suffered any great hardship. In my zeal I froze my face. I shouldn’t care to do another ‘Way Down East.’”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith while filming Way Down East — with D. W. Griffith.

“And yet wasn’t that just when you selected it – for the snowstorm? Every one said so.”

Mr. Griffith shook his head. “No, for the story; every one likes melodrama. Not that a story matters much, though.”

“And you paid $50.000 for ‘Way Down East’?” we asked, insisting on all the ghastly details.

“Seventy-five thousand dollars, to be exact. And yet I say a story matters very little.”

 

“Yes, and when you say that you – you are voicing our own sentiments.” Which is a ladylike way of saying that which no lady ever would say – at least not to Mr. Griffith. “I isn’t the tale, it’s the telling.”

“Where is the story in ‘David Copperfield’?”

“Where?” we murmured.

“The story in ‘Vanity Fair’ is nothing – the tale of an ambitious woman.”

“Exactly,” we acquiesced.

“Where are there any new stories? Show me a new story.”

“Can’t do it – haven’t any, unless you take the one about the girl who loves the good true country lad, but is lured away by a good looking city chap, but repents and is taken back to the honest heart of a country boy.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

“But that isn’t new.”

“No, but they’ll think it is when you get through it, Mr. Griffith.”

“There are not more than five plots in the world.”

“Five plots – and ‘The Bat,’ we agreed.

“And what is your next picture going to be? Do another ‘Broken Blossoms.’”

Mr. Griffith shook his head.

“You couldn’t,” we challenged. “That still remains the most beautiful picture we ever have seen or ever hope to see.”

“And yet I’ll warrant you that ten persons will like this one where one liked ‘Broken Blossoms.’ It was not a play for the masses. It was not a failure, but neither was it a great financial success. Over in Europe, however, it has far exceeded the record of any other picture ever shown there.”

Way Down East, Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Way Down East, Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

“Well, there is no doubt but that they are going to like this picture. Why, every one who came out of the theater said it was the best picture he ever saw. There is only one suggestion: When the heroine is driven out into the blizzard, won’t you please have the orchestra play

“Annie Moore, sweet Annie Moore,

We’ll never see sweet Annie any more”?

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (ice floe scene, Vermont)

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The New York Tribune - Sep.1920
The New York Tribune – Sep.1920

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