It’s from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), starring a heartbreaking and affecting Lillian Gish and a stalwart yet passionate Richard Barthelmess (he who would be so memorable in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings in 1939). Way Down East, even with its overlay of sentimentality towards womanhood (one title card reads: “Maternity – Woman’s Gethsemene”), is a radical and even feminist statement, and is one of the most pointed criticisms of the double standard for men and women ever captured on film. While it doesn’t have the stature of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, it is still a gripping melodrama, with a truly great performance by Lillian Gish in the center of it, she who practically invented close-up acting (along with the help, of course, of her great director).
Theatre has an objectivity to it, because even with careful staging and lighting choices, you cannot make the audience look in any specific place. The action on stage is taken in as a whole piece by the collective eye of the audience. With film, you can control that eye, through collage and close-up. It was a groundbreaking invention, one capitalized upon by D.W. Griffith and other pioneers, like Eisenstein: by using collage, you could create the narrative, from small chunks of filmed events. You could control the gaze. Look here. See this. Now see this. And the close-up turned film into a truly subjective artform. A closeup is not just an image. It is psychology revealed, it is truth. This was not immediately apparent to many early filmmakers, because the medium was so new, and everyone was making it up as they went along. Conventions of theatre were used, almost habitually, in early films, with things still filmed as if there were a proscenium arch. Of course, it was the tradition from which everyone came from. But the pioneers realized almost immediately that the camera could do all sorts of things that the naked eye, sitting in a dark theatre, could not. The camera could move in close on a face. You could cut away from a scene to an entirely different location. You could have a closeup of an object in the middle of a conversation. All of these things help you tell your story in an inventive way. It is, essentially, what the camera is for.
Griffith, in Birth of a Nation, made all kinds of breakthroughs, moving the camera, mounting it on the back of a truck so he could capture the Ku Klux Klan horses running through town (and this, remember, was seen as a good and heroic image!), and moving in, way in, to Lillian Gish’s eloquent face. She is one of those actresses who seems incapable of making a wrong or false move when the camera is on her. She knew exactly what the camera required: truth, dialed down, with the burner turned up high.
Presentational acting was the style of the day, and by that I mean, emotions were pantomimed and presented, largely, to reach the cheap seats in giant theatres. Actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry were masters of this kind of acting. Cinema brought in other requirements. The pantomimes were sometimes too big for the screen, but this was not understood right away. In theatre, you have to somehow show that you are thinking something. Your thought has to be somehow visible to the audience. But in the cinema, the showing part is not necessary. You just need to stand there and think something, even if it’s “I wonder when’s lunch.” The camera reads actual thought. This is not a judgment on the old style of acting. It was just different, something that worked in one venue and not so much in the new medium. To watch Lillian Gish next to the older actors is to watch a new artform literally being born before our eyes. The other actors are uniformly excellent in Way Down East: there’s the cackling gossip, the kindly grandmother, the judgmental landlady, the caddish ladies-man. We understand their characters instantly through their broad use of pantomime and presentation. By contrast, Lillian Gish, who quivers with actual life in every moment, who seems to be experiencing actual emotion, and actually thinking, as opposed to showing she is thinking, still seems, to this day, like she has dropped in from another planet. It’s no wonder she became such a giant star. If she started working today, she would probably find success. Her work does not “date”.
When her character’s shameful past is revealed (and the film makes the point, repeatedly, that it is NOT her shame to begin with. It is the shame of the caddish man, as well as the judgmental hypocritical society in which she lives.) she flees into the teeth of a raging snowstorm. Richard Barthelmess, who plays her admirer, runs after her, desperately calling her name. It’s a gripping sequence. She comes across an ice-bound river, and, trapped, runs out onto the ice. It is at that moment, that the ice begins to break apart into big chunks, and flow down the river, ever faster, towards the thunderous falls. The scene is rightly famous, and deserves its place in history (it is routinely at the top of any list of the Greatest Scenes Ever Filmed). Richard Barthelmess runs out onto the shifting ice floe and chases after her, as she careens towards obliteration.
Griffith had been determined to film during a real storm, with a real icy river. Gish was basically on call, and told to report to duty any time the snow started to fall. The scenes were filmed on Long Island, and also up at White River Junction in Vermont, where the river routinely freezes over. D.W. Griffith’s face actually froze at one point during filming. The camera froze, too. The temperature never went above zero for the entire time they were filming. Gish and Barthelmess did those scenes, over and over again, out in the actual elements, and that reality still emanates off the screen. A phenomenal feat.
It was Gish’s suggestion that she lie on the ice floe, with her hand and hair dangling into the water. She regretted that decision and said in an interview many years later, “After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long. When the sequence was finally finished, I had been on a slab of ice at least twenty times a day for three weeks.”
The river was frozen solid and every day the crew would dynamite it or saw at it to get the chunks of ice they wanted for the ice floe.
So when you watch the clip above, keep in mind: They are actually doing all of this. There are scenes filmed in long shot, where you can see how fast the ice is moving, and you can see the small figure collapsed on one piece of ice, or you can see Barthelmess leaping from chunk to chunk, as the floe is moving. It’s incredible. They are actually doing all of this.
Nothing filmed today even comes close to the incredible feat of this scene. Watch Barthelmess leap from ice chunk to ice chunk. Imagine the courage and athleticism that took. Watch him pick her up in his arms and struggle with her across the chunks of ice.
This is one of the most exciting action scenes ever filmed.