MANCHESTER, NH — The iconic image of actress Lillian Gish trapped on an ice floe and headed straight for a waterfall will once again fill the big screen when ‘Way Down East’ (1920) is revived on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester Historic Association’s Millyard Museum, 200 Bedford St., Manchester, N.H.
‘Way Down East’ will be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist.
‘Way Down East,’ a blockbuster melodrama directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, is set in old-time rural New England, and was partly filmed on location in New Hampshire and Vermont. It stars Gish in an acclaimed performance as a wronged woman trying to make her way in an unforgiving world. Can she find love and redemption, or will she ride to her doom on the raging river’s ice floes?
In ‘Way Down East,’ Gish stars as a poor New England country girl who travels to Boston to visit her rich relatives in the hopes of getting financial help. While there, she’s dazzled by upper class society and romanced by a rich womanizer (Lowell Sherman) who takes advantage of her innocence by tricking her into bed with a fake marriage ceremony.
Convinced she’s found the husband of her dreams, Gish returns home to the country, only to be abandoned. She informs her faux husband she’s pregnant; he orders her to get an abortion. Instead, Gish goes into exile to have the baby, finds herself persecuted for giving birth out of wedlock, and flees even further into the country to seek refuge. The film was noteworthy in its time for addressing such topics as abortion and women’s rights.
Modern critics hail ‘Way Down East’ for Gish’s performance, which continues to mesmerize audiences nearly a century after the film’s release. “Gish provides an abject lesson in screen acting and brings home the importance and effectiveness of seeing a film in a theater with a crowd,” wrote Paul Brenner on www.filmcritic.com in 2007. “If you are not moved at the scene of Gish baptizing her dead baby, then you should check the obituaries of your local paper to see if you are listed.”
The film also stars silent era heartthrob Richard Barthelmess. In the film’s climax, Barthelmess must dash to rescue Gish from being carried away on the ice floes.
Much of the acclaimed ice floe sequence was filmed in March 1920 on location on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and the White River in Vermont, as the winter pack ice was breaking up. No process shots or post-production special effects were available to filmmakers at the time, so Griffith and his crew had no choice but to stage and shoot it all on a real river, with the players out on the ice. To get the floes to break up and float down the river, Griffith’s crew dynamited pack ice upstream.
Gish later said that she suffered frostbite by following director Griffith’s command to always keep one hand in the water during the shooting.
Despite such hardships, ‘Way Down East’ cemented Gish’s reputation as one of the silent era’s major stars. Gish would continue to work in films and, later, television, until the 1980s. She died in 1993 at age 99.
Accompanist Jeff Rapsis specializes in creating music that bridges the gap between an older film and the expectations of today’s audiences. Using a digital synthesizer that recreates the texture of a full orchestra, he improvises scores in real time as a movie unfolds, so that the music for no two screenings is the same.
“It’s kind of a high wire act, but it helps create an emotional energy that’s part of the silent film experience,” Rapsis said. “It’s easier to be in tune with the emotional line of the movie and the audience’s reaction when I’m able to follow what’s on screen, rather than be buried in sheet music,” he said.
Because silent films were designed to be shown to large audiences in theaters with live music, the best way to experience them is to recreate the conditions in which they were first shown, Rapsis said.
“Films such as ‘Way Down East’ were created to be shown on the big screen to large audiences as a communal experience,” Rapsis said. “With an audience and live music, silent films come to life in the way their makers intended. Not only are they entertaining, but they give today’s audiences a chance to understand what caused people to first fall in love with the movies.”
‘Way Down East’ was based on a popular stage drama, for which director Griffith paid the then-astounding sum of $175,000 to turn into a movie. The picture proved to a be a huge moneymaker, taking in $4.5 million, making it the fourth-highest grossing movie of the silent film era. ‘Way Down East’ would be the last of Griffith’s great blockbusters; tastes changed as the 1920s rolled on and Griffith’s Victorian style fell out of favor. Receipts from ‘Way Down East’ kept Griffith’s studio afloat during a subsequent series of box office flops.
“This picture was a monster hit when it was released,” Rapsis said, “and it still holds up well today. As a melodrama, it’s a great film for an audience to cheer on the good folks and boo and hiss the bad guys. But there’s an additional level of interest now because the film captured a way of life that’s long since disappeared.”