“The air is saturated with their feelings for each other as they listen to ‘the distant music of the falls,’ the same falls, of course, that will threaten to kill her.”
Kino International’s recent DVD issue of five films by D. W. Griffith — boxed together as Griffith Masterworks 2 — displays much of that filmmaker’s career arc, with 1914’s Avenging Conscience being one of his earliest features and the two sound films, Abraham Lincoln (1930) and The Struggle (1931), his last productions. In between are the collection’s centerpiece, Way Down East (1920) and the comedy Sally of the Sawdust (1925). None of these titles, excepting Way Down East, are ones Griffith is remembered for — Kino took care of those in the first Griffith Masterworks grouping back in 2002 — but the films in this set feature a powerful range of Griffith’s unique gifts.
Although one can argue over which filming and editing techniques he actually did invent, no one disputes Griffith’s status as a pioneer of cinema. Yet so much of his sensibility — his aesthetic values, his attitudes on sex and race, his southern, Methodist, rural upbringing — was that of a 19th-century man with a Civil War hero for a father. When the 20th began, he was 25 years old, a struggling actor, and anything but a progressive-minded artist on his way to modernism. Throughout his filmmaking life his heart and mind would always remain true to the weird old America1 of his childhood and adolescence. All of its nostalgic yearnings, wounded southern pride, virtues of home and hearth — not to mention racism and fluttering visions of angelic, self-sacrificing child-women — he brought to collide with the aesthetics and technologies of a new art form.
Unlikely as it was for this backward-looking man, saturated with Romantic poetry and Victorian theatre, when he turned to directing films at Biograph in 1908 Griffith intuitively brought to his earliest work a profound sense of realism, which proved as forward-looking for the future of narrative film as for Griffith himself. At the same time, it’s a realism unique to Griffith and a difficult realism to disentangle from those elements in the films, also unique to Griffith, that seem to work against it.
Two elements of this realism are easy to extract. One is Griffith’s instinctive attitude toward a kind of film acting that moves away from the broad projecting gestures of theatrical acting; instead, the camera’s focus is on the emotional utterances of the actors’ eyes. It’s a surprising attitude given Griffith’s roots in the 19th-century stage, but D. W. trusted that the camera would record these silently projected nuances of thought and feeling, and of course he was right. The other element of realism is the director’s insistence on location shooting whenever he could.
Richard Schickel, in his biography of Griffith, remarks that, even in the failures of the director’s later career, “whenever he turned to poverty, to street life, to the dusty rural roads of remembered childhood, the films would suddenly ring with truth.”2
Schickel’s phrase, “the dusty rural roads of remembered childhood,” highlights — as does much of his biography — the idea that those dusty roads are one key (of many) to the emotional core of Griffith’s work. Location shoots were often a link to his southern rural childhood or his impoverished years as a young, transient actor. Seeking the right open-air location — evident from his very first Biograph short, The Adventures of Dollie (1908) — led steadily, as Griffith filmed hundreds of these small films, to rural and urban settings that were not just appropriate for the action, but expressive of it. In the best of the Biographs and his later features, setting has ceased its function as mere background. In the vernacular of painting, you could say figure and ground have merged.
Director Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, El Cid) liked to speak of his preference for shooting on location, explaining that actors, when mixing it up with real light, real temperature, real weather, real rocks and soil, give more authentic performances. But Griffith, who preceded Mann and everybody else, not only practiced this philosophy first, but took it to its purest application in Way Down East‘s climax, in which Lillian Gish, David Barthelmess, and Billy Bitzer’s beleaguered camera submit to an actual, godawful blizzard, brusquely defining itself on screen by allowing little more than ten feet visibility. Ice forms on Gish’s eyelashes, and, when she collapses in a drift of real snow, the actress, we learn, had actually fainted from the exposure, and this before being told to collapse all over again on a real ice floe on a real, freezing river.
But it’s easy to overemphasize the impact of these deliberately spectacular final sequences, thereby undervaluing the impact of the rural settings throughout the film, and, of course, the importance of Gish’s performance before the icicles form on her face. It’s Gish’s tour-de-force, naturalized acting throughout, together with the location work in Way Down East, that would transform its source, the 1898 play by Lottie Parker, from theatrical relic to cinematic masterwork.
By 1920, the movies had adapted hundreds of stage works for the screen, but Way Down East is a supreme example of a film’s “opening up” of a play, accomplished with uncommonly fluid results in its use of open air, rural settings. None of the outdoor work appears gratuitous or forced, as is so often the result, even today, of reimagining a play outside its proscenium-defined settings. What’s more, in Griffith’s bucolic epic the landscape, and how the director contextualizes the characters within it, becomes part and parcel of the drama itself. Schickel argues powerfully that the rural settings in Way Down East constitute an emotional landscape that completes “a dramatic and moral arc.”3
The farm scenes are particularly attuned to the change of seasons: as lost girl Gish surrenders herself to the love and protection of the puritanical Bartletts, Bitzer shoots visions of summer — pictorialist settings rimmed with soft focus that are quietly inhabited by the characters.
Carefully shot and paced scenes of David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) and Anna taking in and enjoying the summer languor must’ve replaced more than a few pages of the play’s dialog. Stage works, of course, are dialog-centric, and a skillful silent film adaptation of a play would need to seek some visual equivalents for content expressed in dialog or monologue — otherwise, the film must drown in a flurry of intertitles.
Thus, the limitations of silent film are partly responsible for the artistic success of this film. If Way Down East had been produced in the sound era, Griffith would probably have felt pressured to hew closely to its text, with his actors mouthing hyperventilated, anachronistic speech throughout — and the results would’ve been juiceless and stilted. Griffith knew full well he’d bought the rights to an out-of-date play, but, in lacking the possibility of sound, Griffith could reach past a mere adaptation of his creaky source into psychological and spatial territory not possible in stage melodrama. As we know, theater cannot do close-ups and it cannot go outside, where the sky meets the trees and homeless girls wander dusty country lanes. And, as we know from the films of, say, Ingmar Bergman, the interior life of people can often be grasped better visually when the people aren’t busy talking.
Having placed Anna and David in outdoor settings, Griffith then captures something emotionally authentic taking place within them. As each of them is caught in stillness and in close-up, we feel Anna’s wounded heart not only finding the balm with which to heal it but also securing a romantic bond with David, who, on his end, catches the vibration of Anna’s loving presence stirring like a breeze in the honeysuckle. All this happens somewhere amongst the homing pigeons at the well, the loaded hay wagon in the field, and the blue-tinted dusk alongside the river. As Schickel has it, “nature’s moods seem to reflect their emotional weather.”4
A particularly beautiful scene has Anna communing with the landscape’s quiet serenity as David, coming from a day’s work in the fields, joins her on the riverbank. Bursting with the need to declare his love, he nonetheless allows both of them some moments to silently take in the sight and sounds of the gloaming. The air is saturated with their feelings for each other as they listen to “the distant music of the falls,” the same falls, of course, that will threaten to kill her.
Winter ends the idyll and brings Anna heartbreak, despair, and a death wish. Close to the blizzard/ice floe scenes, Griffith enacts an outdoor village scene in which Gish and other female actors must trudge through the slush and ice of an overcast winter’s day. Heading home, Anna stops to admire — and gets a little weepy over — a bundled-up infant while, later, Martha Perkins (Vivian Ogden), the town gossip (and a stock caricature if ever there was one), races on foot past snowdrifts in the dwindling light to deliver her fateful message to the Squire — that their cherished servant is an unwed mother, her infant, delivered last winter, dead.
You can feel the temperature drop, and the discomfort of sodden footgear, as the women move under the descent of harsh weather that foreshadows the imminent descent of harsh provincial judgment on the gentle, child-loving Anna, who, trundling her groceries home, looks like a child herself. But liberated from the footlights, the sight of the comic busybody Martha in a real landscape causes a vivid disjoint.
Ogden, as the middle-aged, eccentric spinster, mugs ruthlessly in her scenes with would-be suitor Seth Holcomb (Porter Strong), as the part requires. But even here Griffith catches the malice in the clowning that fully blossoms when Martha assumes the role of Anna’s destroyer. Suddenly, Ogden — her act a reminder of 19th-century rural bumpkin humor and an aspect of Parker’s play Griffith unfortunately retained — becomes a real menace, a juggernaut of repressive small-mindedness, alive to her mission in the desolate chill surrounding her. Griffith’s willingness to shoot this odd, crazed image of Martha in the open air (above) makes the comic artificiality of Ogden’s earlier scenes seem almost, but not quite, like a deliberate, ironic preparation for it.
So, in mixing the theatricality of his source with the reality of his settings, did Griffith know exactly what he was doing? The results more than justified his decision — decried by friends and colleagues as a huge mistake — to adapt Way Down East for the screen. Griffith’s personal link to the old-fashioned values of the play — he was a southern country boy, after all — most likely ignited the project and led to his most perfectly realized work. Yet much of the moralizing polemic woven into the film, some of which, surprisingly, he’s imposed on the material, makes you wonder if Griffith’s accomplishments were more in spite of, rather than because of, who he was.
Nothing could alienate a modern viewer more than the unctuous sentiments Griffith writes into his intertitles, and none more than one of the first, which seeks to introduce the entire film as a public service announcement chastising the male animal: “If there is anything in this story that brings home to men the suffering caused by our selfishness perhaps it will not be in vain.” This plea seems uncomfortably disingenuous — even embarrassingly so, as the director was an unrepentant womanizer — but Griffith’s moral mindset, like his racism, could be surprisingly simplistic and unexamined in a man who could visualize human behavior and intimacy with such compassion and honesty. In the end, we must accept Griffith as a mixture of contrarieties that caused his work to be powerful and universal, flawed and silly, sometimes all at once.
Griffith’s cinematic restructuring of the play’s storyline, which makes it clear he did know what he was doing, is formally elegant and allowed Lillian Gish the opportunity to give the performance of her life. As one of D. W.’s dear hearts, Anna Moore begins the picture as a girl in her teens, and Gish, at 26 or so while filming and not confident at playing so young, pulls it off straight away, projecting all of Anna’s travails — abandonment, childbirth, grief (over the death of her baby and of her own mother), and the threat of dire poverty — with her usual economy of gesture and expression.
At each step of her Passion (Griffith entitles childbirth as Women’s Gethsemane) in the film’s first half, the director brilliantly crosscuts scenes — by way of introducing us to the Bartlett family — of the bucolic paradise she will enter later. “Before she knows of the peace that awaits her, we know it, and the contrast makes her situation more poignant.”5 And within the crosscutting, Gish makes Anna a more intensely real person, not just the stock Victorian image of a wronged woman as a broken vessel in need of mending.
By 1920, through her ongoing collaboration with Griffith, Lillian Gish was already a master of camera-ready, non-theatrical acting, and her application of this naturalism — re-creating and individuating the role of Anna as “this girl” — mixes provocatively with D. W.’s ever-recurring idealization of women as some kind of Eternal Feminine principle.6 But here Griffith’s idealizing fixation on very young women — with of course its accompanying sexual gaze — fits in perfectly as the manner in which the immature David internalizes Anna as image, an image that, of course, must be shattered.
Part of the attraction of Anna for David — other than the virginal innocence he projects onto her — is her mysterious otherness as a Woman of Constant Sorrow. Early titles give David a soul of a poet, and there’s nothing more poetic than Gish as this broken-stemmed lily of a girl. Tennyson would’ve been enraptured by her; Julia Margaret Cameron would’ve rushed to photograph her. For Griffith to film Lillian Gish, on the cusp of the Jazz Age, as a dolorous maiden in gauzy soft focus was to recklessly plumb a Victorian — or even Pre-Raphaelite — aesthetic. But in dramatic context it works: David sees Anna as a shimmering maid of innocence that completes a fantasy; we know her as a woman with experience, both of sex and of terrifying grief, who lives in constant fear of discovery. For Griffith’s uncertain lovers, Anna’s unmasking will be the emotional equivalent of splitting the atom.
The scene in which the Squire outs Anna as a fallen woman — in front of a dinner table crammed with the film’s entire community, including her seducer — has become an oft referenced and ridiculed archetype of old-timey theater, mostly because of actor Burr McIntosh’s memorable “casting-out” gesture, ordering the defeated Anna into the blizzard. It is an operatic moment, but its theatricality is ratified by what follows: Anna’s vividly filmed denunciation of playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). The actress begins, in medium shots, with a pointing gesture, singling out Sanderson, that’s actually much like the Squire’s, but then, in intimate close-up, she delivers her diatribe (right) with such force that you feel her words vibrate in your solar plexus before the intertitles have a chance to deliver the lines.
It’s one of those strangely moving Griffith moments, where something old (the theatrical gestures) meets something new (Gish’s close-up, naturalized projection of feeling), and instead of the new making the old seem even older, the juxtaposition of these elements is a synergy that whips the melodrama to a greater intensity and pushes the scene to its climax.
In Gish’s naturalistic context, McIntosh’s broad, rather hysterical gesture doesn’t gain in realism, but it feels exactly right. After all, the Squire belongs to an earlier age (like Griffith), and Anna is struggling to be part of a newer one. Swinging with a hammer blow of sterling moral character, she lets Sanderson have it right in the kisser, but she’s not exactly liberating herself. I’m sure Anna’s speech is not altered substantially from the play’s 1898 text — yet the realistic power of Gish’s delivery reveals that the stoop-shouldered maiden has the spine of a modern woman, even as she dashes outside to submit her girlish frame to the elements.
Returning from his barnyard chores, David enters this scene in medias res, and his close-ups must register confusion, despair, then anger, in rapid succession, as his carefully guarded image of Anna is blown apart, then replaced by that of grown-up, non-virginal woman whose life has been destroyed by the smirking twit at the end of the table. Barthelmess, as an actor, hadn’t Lillian’s chops, so his face registers maybe just a couple of the requisite number of emotions necessary to convey — in a space of a minute or so — the epiphany that blasts David into maturity. Even so, Griffith allows a fine image to convey David’s untethered feelings: before lunging at Sanderson, David takes a dinner plate and smashes it against the table.
Following this mostly scripted sequence, which stays close, one assumes, to the action in the play, both characters throw themselves into the unstaged drama of an actual winter storm, and Griffith has his masterstroke location shoot. As the blizzard lifts for a moment, Anna gains sight of the river, and an intertitle makes it clear that she seeks death from it. David must reach her before the indifferent forces of nature swallow her up.
There’s no doubt that the irreducible actuality of the blizzard/ice floe sequences is the major reason they complete Griffith’s vision so successfully. The cold and the dim light especially challenged Bitzer and his camera, but as a result, the often-compromised photography has its own visceral integrity. As for the performers, the blizzard shoot was bad enough for Gish, but the weeks of photography on the river had both actors submitting to further dangers and potential frostbite — Gish’s hand trails in the frozen water (her suggestion); Barthelmess, weighed down by an immense fur coat, repeatedly slips from chunks of ice into the river’s current<7 — but the director wins his most emotionally gratifying race-to-the-rescue sequence.
Shooting Anna’s rescue in ferocious weather and on real, bobbing ice floes — and visibly threatening the actors’ lives in the process — is thereby something of a stunt, just as making a movie is, fundamentally, a stunt. But in D. W.’s hands, it’s a stunt with an expressive intent that’s both intuitive and considered. Having swung from sunny glade to whiteout hell, these sequences complete a meticulously created pastoral cycle. The blizzard and the rescue are far more than isolated set pieces: as part of a larger structural and emotive whole, they present a symbolic crisis that powerfully begs resolution.
As spring and summer heal and regenerate, winter wants to kill, erase, then forget. David’s rescue of Anna is at once a baseline example of old-as-the-hills melodrama — it’s possible Griffith was inspired by stage renderings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s climax on the ice — and a far more urgent conceit: a struggle with supra-human forces that the hero must win or consign his beloved to the abyss. Because of the realism and obvious danger involved, the viewer has a more intense emotional investment in the outcome of this contest than it would had it been photographed on a soundstage. With the technique of rear projection not available until 1930, it’s unclear how any halfway approximation of the action could’ve been achieved anyway.
Schickel says, “the effect of these shots . . . is to break through fictional conventions,” and “may therefore represent a poor choice esthetically. But they are also undeniably thrilling as documentary footage, and Griffith was justified in surrendering to their undeniable impact.”8 More than that, the director absolutely needed to break the rules this time. What has gone before in the film has carefully laid the groundwork for this necessity; without the photography in the snow and on the river, the film’s emotional payoff would be close to nil.
Advanced and refined by Bitzer’s photography, the choice of locales, and Griffith’s unerring instincts as to how to integrate his actors’ performances — especially that of Gish — within vast ranges of space and mood, the location work throughout the film enables the rescue scenes to wield a cathartic power. The blizzard/rescue resolution highlights a unique formal achievement, too. Griffith’s editing — his crosscutting, jump cuts, juxtapositions, pacing — is an engine not only functioning within the narrative of the play, but effectively overriding it and driving its own integral visual narrative.
After the rescue, the film ends with a triple wedding. With the “one man for one woman” moral now satisfied, Griffith has fulfilled his duties toward the values of Parker’s play. Indeed, the director’s own moralizing combines with the playwright’s to pinion the film at both ends, but the homilies and lacey sentiments fade to the edges. Griffith’s massive pictorial fabric — woven of feeling, character and setting — is what excites the eye, guides the mind, and overwhelms the heart.
Kino’s transfer of Way Down East, mastered in HD from a 35mm restoration by MOMA, is a vast improvement over the previous Image release of the title on DVD. Resolution, clarity, and detail, if not optimal, are such that the expressive techniques of Bitzer’s photography, especially his variable focus, can be seen and appreciated. Kino claims that the print holds original color tinting, but lovely as it is, it often seems oversaturated in hue, and the transfer as a whole seems dark. But these qualities, if they bother you, can be adjusted with your TV’s remote. Especially in the first half, some very visible damage to the film stock remains, but not enough to compromise one’s intense involvement in this film.
MOMA’s restoration doesn’t give us the complete Way Down East; missing scenes are reconstructed by publicity stills and additional intertitles, and these insertions may account for why the transfer, at 149 minutes, runs three minutes longer than Image’s. None of the reconstituted scenes seem particularly important to our understanding of the film, but we appreciate their inclusion.
We also appreciate the delicate score, newly arranged and utilizing everything from vintage parlor music to a little Sibelius, and played by The Mont Alto Picture Orchestra, a five- to seven-piece chamber ensemble. As a special feature, Mont Alto’s leader, Rodney Sauer, details his approach to configuring such a massive outlay of continuous music, which, nicely captured in 2.0 stereo, is a welcome relief from the Vitaphone track (used in a 1928 reissue of the film) imposed on our ears by the David Shepard Image edition.
Other special features include a film clip of the ice floe sequence from Edison’s 1903 production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a possible inspiration for Griffith in that no such scene appeared in Parker’s original play. There are also notes and photos relating to Lottie Blair Parker’s play, and an image gallery for the film that includes the original souvenir program booklet.
- “Weird old America” is a phrase coined by Greil Marcus for his book on Bob Dylan and his folk roots, Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (1998); in 2001, it became the title of the book’s paperback edition. [↩]
- Schickel, Richard. D. W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996, p. 120. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 435. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 429. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 431. [↩]
- Another of the film’s introductory title cards proclaims Way Down East as “The Story of Woman,” making Anna’s plight symbolic as well as a souped-up melodramatic engine, but the specificity of Gish’s performance belies Griffith’s flowery generalization. [↩]
- Gish was relieved at times by a stunt double for the ice floe scenes, which were mostly filmed in White River Junction, Vermont in early March. Later that spring, both actors went to a much warmer river to secure the shots of David snatching Anna at the very last second from the floe (here, made of plywood) that wants to take her over the falls, the falls being, at that location, about three feet high. To convey real danger, Griffith intercut a shot from Niagara during Anna’s drift toward death. [↩]
- Schickel, p. 433. [↩]