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Gilbert: Way Down East

03/22/10 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) In today's commentary, Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert tells us about the classic silent movie that contains what some people consider to be some of the greatest scenes in film history. And how those key scenes were filmed right here in Vermont.

(GILBERT) Ninety years ago this month, director D.W. Griffith shot the climactic scenes of his classic silent film, "Way Down East," starring Lillian Gish. It's a melodrama about Anna, a poor country girl who's tricked into a fake wedding. She becomes pregnant, the baby dies, and she wanders the countryside until she finds employment with Squire Bartlett. But, when the town gossip tells the Squire about her past, he throws her out, into a raging blizzard. She becomes lost in the storm, falls unconscious on the river ice, which breaks up, sending her downstream toward the falls.

Even if you haven't seen the movie, you may be familiar with its thrilling scene in which Anna is rescued from the ice floe just as she's about to go over the falls. It's been called "one of the most remarkable sequences in film history probably containing the single most memorable images of the silent screen." And it was filmed in Hartford, Vermont, on both the White River and the Connecticut River. They used dynamite upstream to break up the river ice to create the chunks for the heroine to float on, unconscious, and for the hero - who's the Squire's loving son - to leap across and save her just in time.

Making the film was cold work.  They built fires under the camera tripods to stop the movie cameras from freezing. It was Gish herself who suggested to her director that she trail her hand and hair in the water as she floated downstream on the ice floe. 

Griffith loved the effect. She may have regretted it: after a while, her hair froze, and her hand felt as if it were in a flame. "When the sequence was finally finished," she recalled, "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."

The story was originally a play that was hugely popular in the late 1800s. Griffith bought the film rights; the river ice sequence wasn't even in the play; it - by far the most memorable aspect of the film - was added by Griffith, probably inspired by a similar sequence in another hugely successful melodrama, Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Yes, it's melodrama, but it's good melodrama. Not surprisingly, it's moralistic and dated in some ways, but watching the two and a half hour film recently, I found it remarkably engaging.  I enjoyed it in part just for its portrayal of early twentieth century rural New England. It really is a classic - right from Hartford, Vermont, where, D. W. Griffith graciously told the townspeople, he had found "the real backbone of Americanism."

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