A KINDER & GENTLER NATION?

Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And we walked off to look for America
Cathy I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw
I’ve gone to look for America
Laughing on the bus playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera
Toss me a cigaret I think there’s one in the raincoat
We smoked the last one an hour ago
So I looked at the scenary she read her magazine
And the moon rose over an open field
Cathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America ( Bert Sommer, “America” , Paul Simon)

"As part of their Golden Silents series, the Film Society at Lincoln Center is featuring D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, the romantic drama starring the lovely Lillian Gish (confession – I once wrote an entire essay on Lillian Gish’s hair for a college film class. Yes, I know how weird that is.). If for no other reason, go for the famous image of Lillian floating away on an ice floe."

“But then Griffith, shockingly for Griffith, undercuts this hogwash by toning down the cornball and, with an unerring pictorial sense of composition, mood and sharp direction, delivers a powerful emotional wallop. Griffith’s depiction of a New England countryside of an indeterminate time is lyrical and romantic in the most cinematic sense — cynicism banished from the frame and cast of into snow-blinding storm. Here is Griffith at the top of his game, telling a tale in a silent film in clean and crisp illustrative terms, never meandering too much and (despite of the film’s almost three-hour length) propelling the tale forward with relentless and masterful editing. It all leads to the iconic, climactic last-minute rescue during a raging ice blizzard, where Gish, passed out on an ice floe, helplessly heads for almost certain oblivion over raging falls.”

Lillian Gish.

The supposed setting of the film is a remote village in New England – the scene is of a gently rolling, grassy hill, a wooded landscape on the banks of a river, a few white farmhouses, surrounded by hedges, vines and flowering trees. D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” was a silent film, that is not exactly a masterpiece, but it did mark the occasion of a vast cultural change; the fusing of theatre with film. It was the emergence of a new art form. ….

Imagine that a new language has been invented and that, in the first dozen years of its existence, crude sentences are formed with it that only hint at its real possibilities. Then, out of an older discipline, comes a man who seems to have been born a master of the language only recently invented; and he quickly establishes a flexible grammar and a liberating rhetoric. That, basically sums up the role of David Wark Griffith in the history of film.

Lillian Gish. "1920: Lillian Gish (1893 - 1993) the screen name of Lillian De Guiche, in a tense moment from 'Way Down East', directed and produced by D W Griffith.

Griffith was thirty-three when he moved into films in 1908. He had been both a theatre actor and a playwright without much success, which was why he went to work for the Biograph film company in New York, then the center of production activity. When he left Biograph in 1913, he had made about four hundred and fifty films- most of them in one reel, ten minutes or so- and had clarified a new cinema language.

In the next seven years he made seventeen feature-length films. Some of them were very long and complex, possibly because Griffith was reacting against the early restrictions of the one-reeler, and some of them are still peaks of imaginative energy in the medium. Among these feature films, “The Birth of a Nation ( 1915 ) and “Intolerance” ( 1916) are the most famous and, justly, the most praised. Lower in this group is the status of “Way Down East” ( 1920) , but it is a picture of curious strength and of significant interest in American cultural history. It is a film that was hardly flawless, yet it is worth exploring the reasons why it is a film to know.

“Way Down East” was made from a highly successful play of the same name that had its prémiere at Newport, Rhode Island, on September 3, 1897, and that was performed around the United States for more than twenty years. William A. Brady, the producer, recounts in his autobiography how he was brought this play by Lottie Blair Parker, how he thought it had the germ of something but was not in shape, how he engaged an actor-manager named Joseph R. Grismer to revise it, and how they all wrestled with the script in several versions and through several

receptions until it became a huge hit.

The opening title cards:

Since the beginning of time man has been polygamous – even the saints of Biblical history – but the Son of Man gave a new thought, and the world is growing nearer the true ideal. He gave of One Man for One Woman. Not by laws – our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws – but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy. Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any other point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached this high standard – except perhaps in theory.
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.
Time and place – in the story world of make-believe
Characters – nowhere – yet everywhere
Incidents – never occurred – yet always happening

"Even the most flattering biography of Griffith, by Richard Schickel, describes his drunken, maudlin escapades after his star had fallen, his blind lack of business acumen, his unconscious but insidious racism, his self-defeating egomania...."

The Parker-Grismer-Brady play is a melodrama, and came at the end of a century in which the form had dominated the American theatre. What is a melodrama? The term has often been defined- it is one of the easier dramatic terms to define- as a dramatic form using monochrome characters and usually involving physical danger to the protagonist; its one essential ingredient is earthly justice. A “straight” drama may merely imply justice or may end in irony at the absence of justice; in tragedy, justice is often Hereafter. In melodrama, justice may be slow but it is sure, and it is always seen to be done.

By implication, then, melodrama  is an artistic strategy designed, “and desired” to reconcile its audience to the ways things are. In the nineteenth century its chief aim was to support the economic-moral system: a great deal was made of the “poor but honest” theme. Many thousands of farmers saw the play “Way Down East” in the years that it toured the country, and they must have known that this Currier and Ives version of their lives was a long way from brute fact, but the fiction gave them two things: escape while in the theatre, and roles to imagine themselves in outside it. As Eric Bentley says, “Melodrama is the Naturalism of the dream life.”

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in “Way Down East.”

Griffith apparently had a sense of these functions of melodrama in a bourgeois, mock-egalitarian society, terms he probably never used. He also must have had some sense of the pluralist nature of the public at any given time, the perception that new interests can co-exist with old ones. So in 1920, the year in which O’Neill wrote “Beyond the Horizon”, when Stravinsky and Satie were already known composers, when Picasso and Matisse were known painters, two years after the end of a world war that had altered certain traditions forever, Griffith paid around $175,000, much more than the entire cost of “Birth of a Nation” , for the screen rights to a twenty-three year old rural melodrama.

Griffith made many bad decisions in his life, but this time his choice was sound. Lillian Gish , who was to play the heroine said, “we all thought privately that Mr. Griffith had lost his mind… we didn,t believe it would ever succeed…After I had read the play I wondered how I was going to make Anna convincing”. It did succeed, tremendously, and in large part because Griffith showed her how to make Anna convincing. Before shooting, he rehearsed his cast for eight weeks in New York.

“The film sounds old-fashioned but really isn’t. Griffith sabotages the musty storyline by criticizing dense-minded reformers, inverting the smug Puritanical justifications of the bigoted characters, and providing depth to his bad guy character (the oily Lowell Sherman) by having him not only look like a big, fat, rich baby (eliciting some sympathy for his debaucheries) but permitting him to get away scot-free to continue on a new blighted path of depravity (this guy gets away with everything).

"But in the second act Griffith shifts gears. The action now covers only a couple of days and consists of three successive, rising movements, each centered on intense cross-cutting among parallel lines of action. It culminates when the squire learns of Anna’s past and casts her out into a raging snowstorm, occasioning one of the most celebrated sequences in Griffith’s work: the chase across the ice floes, as David rushes to rescue the unconscious Anna from plummeting over a waterfall. The literary underpinnings of the first half give way to the burstingly cinematic technique of the second, an effect as devastating today as it was when the film first appeared."

And then there is Lillian Gish. Gish pulls out all the stops, her emotions running the gamut from Chaplinesque comedy (Griffith includes shots of Gish as a lone figure walking away from the camera down a dusty country road), to heart-tugging scenes sadness, to unbridled sequences of raw hysteria — witnessing her performance on the big screen is like watching a close relation wig out in front of you. 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. 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.”

Out of his experience in the theatre,in his native Kentucky, and stock and road companies, there arose the conviction for Griffith that he knew how to make “Way Down East”  “work” and that the postwar public had not shed all its old affinities. And very clearly, he also understood how film was taking over the form and function of melodrama from the theatre and expanding it in the directions toward which it had been moving.

That’s the last point to note before we discuss the picture itself. Inventions don’t happen at random in human history. Edison didn’t just wake up one morning and say,”Today I think I’ll invent the motion picture.” Inventions are usually the result of scientific progress, of course, but also- which is less often recognized- they are often the result of intense cultural pressure. In the book “Stage to Screen” , A. Nicholas Vardac has shown that “a cinematic approach” was increasingly evident in the popular theatre of the nineteenth century. One can say, not too fancifully, that cultural dynamics foretold the arrival of the film, that the nineteenth-century audience “demanded” that the film be invented.

Griffith was not the only director to understand how the film could satisfy certain hungers in the theatre audience, but he was exceptionally well equipped to take advantage of the metamorphosis. “Way Down East” was not the first, or last, theatre melodrama to be filmed, but, through it, one can almost hear Griffith saying to the audiences of twenty-five years before, “Here! This is what you “really’ wanted.”

“The film is subtitled: “A Simple Story of Plain People,” with director Griffith intending that its sweeping, lyrical, but epic style would convey an image of a vanished, unspoiled, pastoral America. It is a simple, timeless allegory of plain, everyday people in a story which attacks prejudice and bigotry. Lillian Gish’s performance as Anna Moore is superb and flawless, beautifully photographed as having an inner light and spirituality. Moving, authentic and intense, she expresses the full range of emotions from a young, fragile and innocent country girl in the big city, to an ecstatically-infatuated new bride, to a betrayed “wife,” to a bereaved unwed mother, and then into a matured woman.”

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One Response to A KINDER & GENTLER NATION?

  1. Jeffrey Burman says:

    May I have permission to reprint the Gish photo on the ice floe? It would be for CineMontage, which is a published by the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Local 700 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees. It’s a bi-monthly and a not-for-profit. We print about 6500 copies per issue.

    best,

    Jeff Burman

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