WAY DOWN EAST (1920) B/W "silent" 110m dir: D.W. Griffith
w/Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman
A masterpiece! An outrageously hoary melodrama is transformed by screen artists Gish and Griffith. Gish is seduced by a rake into a sham marriage. When her disgrace is discovered, she is sent into the frozen wastes by her New England community. Although the film has been reconstructed to its full 165 minutes, TCM is showing a much shorter version.
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films : "Based on an old stage melodrama, the rights to which cost Griffith $175,000, and filmed on Long Island, Way Down East is the best of Griffith's later films, despite its Victorian sentimentality, morality, and heroics. In total contrat to Broken Blossoms ..., Griffith shot about thirty times as much footage as he eventually used in the film. At the time of its production, he declared: 'We live in a time when ideas have supplanted technical form in the cinema. The idea, the theme, the subject, the basic thought is the only element to consider in the choice of a film story, and it must be able to be expressed briefly, in 300 words, as is that of Way Down East .' Louis Delluc wrote, 'Griffith describes in his black and white style the story of an unmarried mother, a dead child, and a brave hero. The key scene of the breakup of the ice on the river, questionable in intention, is unquestionable in effect, because of the marvellous talent of Lillian Gish, the vigorous healthiness of Richard Barthelmess, and the beneficial grandeur of the snowy landscape, which the producers have interfered with only when it was necessary.' This famous sequence, which influenced Pudovkin when he made Mother ..., shows the young girl being rescued from river ice that is breaking up and carrying her towards a waterfall. Griffith made this sequence out of an unusual collection of material that included not only specially filmed exteriors on the frozen Connecticut River and studio shots, but also shots taken out of various documentaries (including one on Niagara Falls), which were then convincingly intercut. Some of the sequences (such as the dress parade) were filmed in color."
In the sequence on the ice, pay attention to Gish's hand, which is trailing in the cold water. In her 1969 autobiography she states: ""For the scene in which Anna faints on the ice floe, I thought of a piece of business and suggested it to Mr. Griffith, who agreed it was a fine idea. (I was always having bright ideas and suffering for them.) I suggested that my hand and my hair trail in the water as I lay on the floe that was drifting toward the falls. Mr. Griffith was delighted with the effect. After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long. When the sequence was finally finished, I had been on a slab of ice at least twenty times a day for three weeks. In between takes, one of the men would throw a coat around me, and I would warm myself briefly at a fire. This kind of dedication probably seems foolish today, but it wasn't unusual then. Those of us who worked with Mr. Griffith were completely committed to the picture we were making. No sacrifice was too great to get the film right, to get it accurate, true, and perfect. We weren't important in our minds; only the picture was. Mr. Griffith felt the same way; it was his picture, not he, that counted."