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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ada Blackjack

In 1921 Ada Blackjack was hired as seamstress and cook for the ill-fated expedition to Wrangel Island.  The members of the expedition were handpicked by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in an attempt to establish a permanent settlement on the island and thus establish a claim for Canada.  Allan Crawford, Fred Maurer,  and Milton Galle disappeared in January, 1923 while trying to cross the Chukchi Sea to Siberia after the expedition's supplies ran out.  Lorne Knight died on the island - apparently from complications related to scurvy. Finally, after several months alone on Wrangel, Ada Blackjack was rescued in 1923 when another colonization company was landed on the island.  That attempt also failed and the island was eventually claimed by the Soviet Union.

Diary for April 15 - 17, 1923
Starting in March, 1923, Ada kept a diary in which she recorded daily events on Wrangel.  An entry from April 15 reads "I was out the traps they was nothing and storming looking weather today.  And I got my boots soles already and soak them and knight said he feel bad." A later entry from June 22, 1923 reads "I move to the other tent today and I was my dishes and getting some wood."  On the surface a fairly normal entry, this was actually the day Ada found Knight dead in the tent that they had been sharing. A later narrative of the expedition by Ada reveals that Knight "died June 22, 1923, I found him dead the next morning after he saw me crying."

Though she was the lone survivor of the expedition, Ada Blackjack shunned publicity and tried to disappear from public view, emerging only to refute allegations that she had been responsible for Knight's death.  She died in 1983.

Ask for Stefansson Mss 8 to see Ada's diary, photos, and other material. A finding aid is available.  Additional material on the Wrangel expedition can be found in Stefansson's papers (Stefansson Mss 98 and Stefansson Mss 196), the papers of Harold Noice (Stefansson Mss 91) and the papers of Ingles Fletcher (Stefansson Mss 34).