Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East (1920)

Toronto Film Society presented Way Down East (1920) on Monday, March 16, 1964 as part of the Season 16 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 5.

Programme No. 5
(Monday, March 16, 1964)

1908: At the Crossroads of Life
1920: Lillian Gish in Way Down East, with Richard Barthelmess

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At the Crossroads of Life

Produced by American Biograph; July 1908
Story by “Lawrence” Griffith
Directed by Wallace McCutcheon
Cast includes D.W. Griffith
In 1 reel (about 15 minutes)

Griffith is so celebrated as a director that we thought you’d be curious to see what he looked like as an actor.  Here we see him in a film directed by somebody else.

Born January 23, 1875, in Kentucky, he was thus 32 years old at this time.  Griffith’s original ambition was to be a writer; it is said that he first became an actor in order to gain first-hand knowledge of stage requirements.  At any rate, he was a fairly successful actor, and had had a play produced professionally in 1907; bit in the spring of 1908, being temporarily out of work and needing money, he swallowed his pride and sought work in the Biograph studio on 14th Street in New York.  (He had done a few days work the previous year for the Edison company, a still-extant film by Edwin Porter called Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest).  He got a day’s work at Biograph, was asked to return, and was soon working steadily as an actor,–and also selling stories to them for $15.00 each.  One of these was At the Crossroads of Life, which was filmed in June or early July 1908.  The director, Wallace McCutcheon (he later married Pearl White) was the son of “Old Man” McCutcheon, the regular director for Biograph, and had taken over when his father became ill.  Not long after this Wallace McCutcheon left, and the job of director was offered to Griffith, who accepted it, not without hesitation, and remained with Biograph till 1913,  turning out one-reelers at the rate of two a week.  For his first two years or so in movies, he used an alias: “Lawrence Griffith”, intending to reserve his correct name, David Wark Griffith, for his more respectable occupations, such as writing and the theatre.

 In 1913 he made his first feature, the four-reel spectacular Judith of Bethulia.  The Biograph top-brass were so insensed at his having made a feature, contrary to company policy, that Griffith was deprived of his authority, whereupon he quit Biograph, and after a brief spell with another company, he formed his own company.  With him went most of his devoted actors and technical staff from Biograph.  The company flourished for awhile, but in 1925 he gave up and went to work for Paramount to pay off his debts.  He made his last film in 1931, but lived on till July 23, 1948.

Way Down East

Released by United Artists, October 1920
Produced and directed by D.W. Griffith
Adapted from the play by Lottie Blair Parker
Cameramen: Hendrik Sartov and B.W. Bitzer

Anna Moore……………………………….Lillian Gish
David Bartlett…………………………….Richard Barthelmess
Lennox Sanderson………………………Lowell Sherman
Squire Bartlett…………………………….Burr McIntosh
Mother Bartlett……………………………Kate Bruce
Kate, their niece…………………………..Mary Hay
The professor………………………………Creighton Hale
Maria Poole…………………………………Emily Fitzroy
Martha, the village gossip……………..Vivia Ogden
Seth Holcomb……………………………..Porter Strong
Constable……………………………………George Neville
Hi Holler…………………………………….Edgar Nelson

Note: This edition of the film is the one that was reissued in 1932 with an added musical soundtrack but unfortunately considerably shortened.  We had originally booked the Museum of Modern Art’s newly-acquired print of the unabridged 1920 version, but unfortunately at the last minute the MMA found it necessary to substitute the shorter 1932 version, as they are still in the process of preparing a negative master copy from their one and only print.  Sorry!  Perhaps some other year…

Way Down East (1920)


The four-act play, “Way Down East” by Lottie Blair Parker (“elaborated by Joseph R. Grismer”), was first produced by William A. Brady and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. at the Manhattan Theatre in New York, February 7, 1898, with Phoebe Davies (Mrs. Grismer) as Anna Moore.  It had 152 performances there, and quickly became an American classic, a profitable favorite with touring and stock companies everywhere.  Over several years Phoebe Davies played Anna Moore over 4,000 times.

By 1920 the play was already considered old-fashioned, and the sophisticates wondered why Griffith, who had just wondered why Griffith, who had just dazzled the critics with the poetic Broken Blossoms, should turn to this old piece of corn, actually paying $175,000 for the screen rights.  But Broken Blossoms had disappointed at the box-office, so Griffith decided that old reliable Way Down East might prove more to the public taste,–and how right he was !  For the next five years he was able to run his studios in Mamaroneck, Long Island, on the profits from Way Down East.  He needed to, for it was his last financially successful picture.

But for all the initial attraction of the popular play, the scene that really made the film was one that wasn’t in the original: the spectacular ice floe rescue, which audiences remembered long after the rest of the film was forgotten.  Another scene presumably not in the play caused trouble for Griffith: the childbirth scene.  So many squeamish censors screamed and cut it out that Griffith threatened to film a special scene for those states, showing Anna Moore finding her baby under a cabbage leaf.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Modern audiences should bear in mind that until some time in the mid-1920’s film-makers relied greatly on the use of “tinted stock”.  Night scenes, for example, were printed on blue film,–thus creating the illusion of darkness without the necessity of trying to film the scene in real darkness.  Tinted stock isn’t made any more; consequently, in this 16mm print of Way Down East, several of the scenes, including the ice floe scene, appear to take place in broad daylight when the context of the story clearly indicates that it is night.  We hereby alert our members to the necessity of pretending a scene is dark when it obviously isn’t!

(For an account of the filming of Way Down East, see Page 6).  {Chapter XVII below}

Way Down East (1920)


LILLIAN Diana GISH was born in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, 1896, where her father had a confectionary shop.  A year later they moved to Dayton, where Dorothy Gish was born (1898); and subsequently to Baltimore, and then to New York, where the father, who seems to have been a charming but insecure ne’er-do-well, presently walked out on them (early 1902), leaving them completely penniless.  Fortunately their two boarders were actresses, and one of them found jobs for each of the little girls: Dorothy in a touring company of “East Lynne” and Lillian in the touring company of “In Convict Stripes” (a play by Wallace Reid’s father, Hal Reid; and as mentioned in the notes for our first program this season: when Lillian left the company in Buffalo, her role was taken over by a little girl from Toronto, Gladys Smith, the future Mary Pickford.  A by-product of this path-crossing was that when the Smiths moved to New York, they lived with the Gishes for awhile).  Left behind in New York, Mrs. Gish was inspired to try the same line of work, and managed to support herself by doing walk-ons and bit parts.

The Gish sisters thus spent most of their childhood in trains, cheap hotels and small theatres. One season (1903-04) they were lucky: Mrs. Gish managed to get parts for all three of them in the same company; but though Dorothy and her mother were together in several other companies, Lillian was usually on her own.  Their summers were usually free, however; and for the first two years they spent them in New York, where the Gishes and the Smiths used to play together.

By 1909 the nickelodeons were making such inroads on the popularity of the travelling theatres that jobs were becoming harder to get.  Mrs. Gish returned to the confectionary business, and the girls went to a regular school for a change.  It was the summer of 1912 before the girls returned to New York to begin looking for theatre work again.  They went to see David Belasco, who was able to offer Lillian a small part in his forthcoming production, “A Good Little Devil”, which was to star Mary Pickford and Ernest Truex.  Who Mary Pickford was the girls had no idea; but they found out when, having spotted their old friend Gladys Smith in a movie, they looked her up at the Biograph studio in New York.  Gladys, or Mary now, got them jobs at Biograph, and they worked there steadily until near the end of the year, when both Mary and Lillian left to begin rehearsals for “A Good Little Devil”.  The rest of the company left soon afterwards for California, to continue picture making in the company’s Los Angeles studios.

Not long after the play opened in New York in January, Mary Pickford called Belasco’s attention to the fact that Lillian was so run-down physically that she was threatened with pernicious anemia. Learning that she had a standing offer of work with Griffith out in California at double her present salary, Belasco generously paid her fare to Los Angeles; and she left New York at the  end of January, 1913, fully intending to return to Belasco in t he fall.

As it turned out, it was another seventeen years before she returned to New York to resume her interrupted stage career.  In April, 1930, she returned to Broadway in a production of “Uncle Vanya”, and has been back on the stage ever since, with an occasional appearance in films and TV.  (Among other things, she played Ophelia in Gielgud’s “Hamlet”, which had its pre-Broadway opening in Toronto in September, 1936).

However, the seventeen-year interlude was not entirely a waste of time.  California sunshine and fresh air soon restored her to health.  Like all the Biograph company, she played everything from bits to leads in the one-reelers (occasionally two-reelers) that Griffith continued to churn out.  Her first leading role in an important film (two reels long!) was in A Mothering Heart.  She also had an important supporting role in Judith of Bethulia; and when Griffith then left Biograph and formed his own company, the Gishes were among those that went along with him.

Lillian had important roles in The Battle of the Sexes, Home Sweet Home, The Birth of a Nation, and a small but important role in Intolerance.  During 1915-16 she appeared in a number of films directed by Griffith’s subordinates, including Enoch ArdenCaptain Maclin and one called Diane of the Follies in which she played a vamp role!  (“But Diane was very easy to play” she says. “Anybody can play a character of that sort–it plays itself.  It is the part of a good woman, whose colorless life has to be made interesting, that is hard”).  In 1917 she and Dorothy went to England with Griffith to make Hearts of the World, and found themselves in London during the worst of the air raids.  Back in America she appeared in three minor Griffith films: The Great LoveThe Romance of Happy  Valley and True Heart Susie; and then came the film that first established her as a great actress: Broken Blossoms (1919).

Way Down East (1920)

Lilliian had always wanted to direct a film, and soon after Broken Blossoms Griffith gave her the opportunity.  In fact, he had so much confidence in her ability that he went off to Florida to make a film, leaving her on her own in his New York studio.  The film, Remodeling a Husband, was a comedy starring Dorothy Gish, whose comedy gifts Lillian felt were being overlooked.  It seems to have been a good little film in its own unpretentious way, and it made a comfortable profit for the company.  But Lillian found directing a tougher job than she had anticipated, and never tried it again.

Way Down East came next (see page 6) {Chapter XVII below}, and in 1921 she and Dorothy made their last film for Griffith: Orphans of the Storm.  Lillian then left and formed her own company, making two films in Italy: The White Sister (1923) which was a box-office success, and Romola (1924) which wasn’t.  She then signed a contract with M-G-M to make six pictures, though in fact only five were made: La Boheme (completed December 1925), The Scarlet Letter (1926), Annie Laurie (1927), The Enemy (1927) and The Wind (1928).  Then she signed with United Artists for three pictures to be directed by Max Reinhardt, the first to have been The Miracle Girl of Konnersreuth; but the Talkie Revolution upset all their well-laid plans, and Reinhardt backed out.  Lillian did make one film for United Artists: One Romantic Night (Monar’s The Swan, remade a few years ago with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness) which was released in May, 1930; and then she resumed her stage career.

She has been seen on television in “The Trip to Bountiful”, “Morning’s at Seven” and “Ladies in Retirement”; and recent films she has appear in include The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Cobweb (1955), Orders to Kill (1958) and The Unforgiven (1960).

During the height of her screen career there was great controversy as to whether or not she was a great actress.  Her champions included such authorities as George Jean Nathan (the Nathan Cohen of Broadway) and John Barrymore; but other critics protested that she adapted every role to her own personality,–though that, in fact, is precisely what many of the greatest actors in the world have done.  There is no doubt that she prepared and researched for each role with all the thoroughness and intelligence of the best (not the worst) Method actors; but there were those who felt that the calculation in her performances was all too apparent, lacking the necessary air of spontaneity that must disguise the mechanics.  It’s all probably just a matter of whether one responds to her personality or not.

RICHARD BARTHELMESS was born in New York City on May 9, 1897.  He was educated in Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., and played in stock companies (including a summer in Hamilton, Ontario, when he was sixteen) before he entered pictures in 1916.  This came about because he was playing opposite the famous Russian actress, Alla Nazimova (whom his mother had taught English) in a one-act play which had been touring the Keith vaudeville circuit; and Lewis Selznick signed her to make a film version of it.  The film was a box-office triumph, and launched both players on their highly successful film careers.  Barthelmess played opposite the popular Marguerite Clark in several of her pictures, and in reviewing one of them, Bab’s Burglar, Photoplay Magazine (January 1918) wrote: “The producer who realizes that all this boy needs is a little experience and coaching, can acquire a valuable player by developing the talent latent in his pleasant personality”.

The producer who fulfilled this prediction was no less than D.W. Griffith, who used him in several films, the most important of which was Broken Blossoms and Way Down East.  But after completing the latter film, Barthelmess left to form his own company, Inspiration (releasing through First National), and his first film was Tol’able David (1921).  He never made another picture as good.  “As a popular star with his own company, he had to be conscious of what the public wanted, and deliver films that were as ‘sure-fire’ as possible.  The films that rolled off the Inspiration assembly line were all slick, polished productions; in terms of entertainment value, Barthelmess never disappointed his fans” (Franklin).  Among these films were Soul-Fire, The Enchanted Cottage, The Drop Kick, Ransom’s Folly, The Patent Leather Kid, Shore Leave and The Amateur Gentleman.

He continued on into talkies; but he made a faux-pas in his first one, Weary River (1929), for he sang the title song; which became a current favorite,–and there was great scandal when it was revealed that the singing voice was someone else’s.  I think his fans never quite forgave him for this deception, and his personal popularity gradually ebbed, though some of his subsequent films were quite successful, notably The Dawn Patrol (1930).  He dropped out of films around the mid-1930’s, except for a brief return in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), his final appearance.  He served in the armed forces during the war, and afterwards retired comfortably.  He died on August 17, 1963, at his summer home in Southampton, Long Island.

MARY HAY, who plays Squire Bartlett’s niece, was Barthelmess’s wife at the time.  She took over the role after the death of the promising young actress Clarine Seymour, who may still be discerned in some of the long shots.  Mary Hay later became better known as a Broadway star.

Way Down East (1920)

(The filming of Way Down East is described in Chapter 17 of the book, Life and Lillian Gish by Arthur Bigelow Paine (MacMillan, 1932), from which the following excerpts are quoted):

Chapter XVII Way Down East

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 snowstorm 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 pint 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.

Way Down East (1920)

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-conscious, 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; it 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 sipped in.  I would not make that picture again for any money that a producer would be willing to pay for it.”

At the end of the ice scene, there is an instant when the cake, at the brink of the 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.

Way Down East (1920)

The critical moment at the brink of the fall was made in summertime, at Winchell Smith’s farm, near Farmington, Connecticut.  The ice-cakes here were 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….

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, 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 on 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 ace the camera” were sharp admonitions perpetuated by a right-about-face in the picture to this day.

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 cameraman, 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 subtitles.  You saw her dripping the water on the baby’s head; then a subtitle flashed on, saying: “In the name of the Father, etc” and the spell was broken.

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 childbirth.  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 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 was never 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.

(A copy of Life and Lillian Gish can be found on the reference shelf of the Theatre branch of the Toronto Public Library)

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Way Down East (1920)

Edward Wagenknecht, re-appraising Way Down East recently (The Movies in the Age of Innocence, 1962) says: “….The spectacular close of Way Down East seems to me the part that has worn least well.  The “big scene” at the table…is simply not suitable material for the silent film; it requires dialogue….  As for the ice scenes, although they almost lifted me out of my chair when I first saw the film,they now seem robbed of much of their effectiveness by imperfect co-ordination…  Anna runs out onto the river and falls down in the middle of an ice cake; a moment later a close shot shows her lying on the edge of it; still later we see it separate and form the edge upon which she is lying.  The handling of dramatic time seems to me much less successful in Way Down East than it had been in Intolerance.  At a comparatively early stage, Anna is shown so close to the falls that David could not possibly reach her in time, yet the scenes go on for a long time afterward, with the camera continually shifting, so that it becomes quite clear that the sequence has been patched together out of shots taken at different times and in different places”.  (p.127-8)

I’m sure it is unnecessary to mention that the ice scene from Way Down East has bee incorporated into the recent film, Hallelujah the Hills.

Programme Notes by Fraser Macdonald

Next programme (the last of the season): Monday April 13: Foolish Wives, directed by and starring Erich Von Stroheim.

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