Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – Way Down East (1920)
One of the most influential early directors of all time was D.W. Griffith, who rose to acclaim for the excellent short dramas he directed for Biograph and went on to create some of the biggest features of the 1910s. Controversial today because of The Birth of a Nation (1915) (you might be aware of it), his experimental epic Intolerance (1916) and masterful dramas like Broken Blossoms (1919) have nevertheless remained landmarks of early cinema.
By the end of the 1910s, having established such a high reputation and having just made a string of lower budget films like A Romance of Happy Valley (1919), Griffith felt the pressure to churn out more ambitious masterpieces. How would he follow up on a massive, multi-hour feature like Intolerance? Or even the wartime propaganda piece Hearts of the World (1918), made at the request of the British government? Surprisingly, Griffith was inspired by the last thing anyone would’ve imagined: the old, tired Victorian melodrama Way Down East.
Written by Lottie Blair Parker and producer William A. Brady and first performed in 1897, Way Down East was a genuine old-school “mellerdrama,” about the innocent, naive Anna lead astray by a dastardly seducer, abandoned by him and forced to bear her subsequent baby alone. The baby dies, Anna quietly finds work as a lowly servant on the Bartlett farm, but in time her secret past is revealed. The showpiece of the play was a scene where Squire Bartlett points dramatically at the door and orders the girl to leave. Lillian Gish recalled, candidly: “We all thought privately that Mr. Griffith had lost his mind.”
To Griffith, this cliched, over-familiar play had a deeper meaning than first met the eye. It wasn’t just melodrama, it stood for many struggles suffered by generations of innocent people, especially women. Its predominantly rural settings and “rustic” characters were both nostalgic and reflected many of the very audiences who had enjoyed the play so much over the years. It was, Griffith felt, a humble piece of Americana that was worthy to be retold in a fresh way and elevated to the status of art.
Accordingly, Griffith paid an astonishing $175,000 for the rights to the play and started production at his studio in Mamaroneck, New York. It would take over six months to film–a long time for even the big features–largely because Griffith wanted to film a number of outdoor scenes that depended on authentic changes in season. Most importantly, he would need a real blizzard for the climax of the film–and apparently took out insurance in case it didn’t appear by a certain date.
The great Lillian Gish, who’d been with Griffith’s studio since 1912, was cast as the virginal Anna, and the up-and-coming young Richard Barthelmess was cast as David, the farmer’s son (he had also been in Broken Blossoms). The dastardly Lennox Sanderson would be played by Lowell Sherman, who specialized in similarly dastardly characters. Other actors originally included Clarine Seymour, who’d made a splash as a proto-flapper in True Heart Susie (1919), but unfortunately, she died of an intestinal ailment and was replaced by Mary Hay (Hay would later marry Barthelmess).
Numerous details were carefully poured over. Anna’s clothes were designed to be plain and not that noticeable. In the ballroom scenes, her gown was inspired by Greek clothing, in contrast to the fashionable ladies around her (that included the real-life socialite Mrs. Morgan Belmont). “It wasn’t in style then, and it wouldn’t be in style now,” Gish recalled, “but it has never been out of style.” Anna’s childhood home is a warm and nostalgic place, with old-fashioned furniture and lilac bushes in the front yard. The Bartletts’ country home is equally comfortable, with oil lamps and quaintly-patterned tablecloths.
Way Down East abounds with beautiful shots and romantic details, like the pastoral scenes of Anna and David by a lake, or a dove perching on Anna’s shoulder when she’s at a well. The comic scenes involving several village characters like gossipy Martha Perkins and nerdy Professor Sterling haven’t aged quite as well and were probably hearkening back to rural comedies from the stage. The dramatic scenes, however, more than make up for them.
Some of these scenes were among the most effective Griffith had ever done. The heartbreaking scene of Anna losing her baby was shot at night, for as quiet and solemn a background as possible. The baby’s father watched the shooting and Gish later claimed he fainted at one point. The brief scenes of Anna in labor, showing a doctor dabbing sweat from her face while servants listened outside the door, seem pretty basic today but were considered shockingly realistic in their day – critics wondered if that much realism was necessary.
But the crown jewel of the film was the impressive frozen river sequence. Griffith had insisted on waiting for a real blizzard before shooting it, which didn’t come until March. He and his crew worked day and night to get the shots they needed of Gish floundering through the snow in her light dress–several closeups captured the ice that started forming on her face and eyelashes. Many of the river scenes were shot at White River Junction, Vermont, with the actual river ice broken into floes by the crew. Gish, who was a trooper throughout the whole ordeal, suggested that when Anna collapses on a floe she should trail her hand in the water. Until the end of her life, her hand would ache whenever it was exposed to the cold.
Some of the shots with the waterfall were later done in the spring at a small river in Farmington, Connecticut, with plywood ice floes. But the shots of David running across the ice floes to save Anna were authentic as they could be. Barthelmess had to jump from floe to floe in his bulky fur coat, at one point almost sinking into the freezing water – a moment that made it into the finished film.
Dangerous and time-consuming as the shoot could be, in the end, Griffith had made another masterwork that became a huge box office draw. The premiere was a triumph, with the audience cheering and whistling by the end of the river sequence. Most critics gave the film high praise, one of them stating, “There is a real and unaffected poignancy about the betrayal of a young and ignorant girl by a sophisticated seducer which can easily be brought home to vast audiences. Here the moving picture has the advantage over the play.”
Gish recalled reminiscing with Barthelmess about Way Down East’s shoot, and how he talked about how dangerous the ice floe sequence had been. “I wonder why he went through with it,” he had said to her. “We could have been killed. There isn’t enough money in the world to pay me to do it today.”
To Gish, Griffith’s most devoted and hardworking actress, the answer to this was simple: “But we weren’t doing it for money.”
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterlyand has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.