Friday, April 13, 2012

Drama On the Ice

It was extremely difficult resisting the urge to blog about the Titanic this week. Never the less, let's talk about a more local cold and dangerous ice-related event: the filming of D.W. Griffith's classic melodrama, Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish.

In March of 1920, Griffith, his crew and cast were filming on location in White River Junction, including shooting barn dance scenes at the Hotel Coolidge. Mostly, Griffith needed a frozen river and a snow storm to shoot the famous scene when our heroine is cast out into a blizzard, wanders blindly onto the frozen river, collapses and ends up floating down toward the falls on an ice floe.

The ice floe scenes were shot on the Connecticut and White Rivers, and drew crowds of local residents to watch the production. When she was on campus many years later to receive the first Dartmouth Film Award, Ms. Gish recalled that there had been some Dartmouth students who turned up to watch the filming, but they quickly lost interest, partially because the star was way out in the middle of the river, but also because it was just so terribly cold. A program for a September 1920 showing of Way Down East at the Majestic Theater in Boston comments on the expense of the engineering staff and the difficulties of "picturizing the elemental forces in the ice break-up of the river" which ultimately would make it one of Griffith's most expensive films.

The program also tells us that the film was a "simple, plain, old-fashioned story of very plain every-day people." Fortunately, I do not know any every-day people in the Upper Valley who would send their sons' girlfriends out into a blizzard to be washed down the Connecticut River on a piece of ice… but perhaps things were different in 1920.

Ask for the Way Down East photo file and the vertical file on Lillian Gish.

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