By Mark Bushnell, VTDigger
The movie is long forgotten, but the scene is well remembered. It is a classic of the silent-movie era. A young woman lies unconscious on an ice floe as it floats downriver toward a waterfall. All the while, her lover braves the teetering ice sheets, desperately trying to reach her.
The scene from D.W. Griffith’s 1920 movie “Way Down East” was shot on the Connecticut River and the White River at Hartford. The actor trying to save the heroine was a junior at nearby Dartmouth College. But the star was a young actress named Lillian Gish, who was already a matinee idol and would continue acting for nearly 70 years.
Though she appeared in scores of movies, and lived to the age of 99, Gish never forgot her time in Vermont. Perhaps it was the hardships she endured to create the famous scene, and the emotional reaction it elicited from audience members at screenings.
Gish was born Lillian de Guiche in 1893 in Springfield, Ohio, into a theater family. Her mother already acted under the last name of Gish, an Anglicization of the family name.
Her father, a candy salesman, moved the family to Baltimore but later abandoned them and
relocated to New York City. Her mother moved with her children to New York, but she wasn’t pursuing her husband; she and her daughters were pursuing a dream. Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy soon became successful stage actors. They befriended another child star, Gladys Smith, who acted under the name Mary Pickford. Pickford left the stage when she began landing parts in motion pictures, the exciting new employment opportunity for actors.
Pickford quickly became a movie star, but she didn’t forget the Gish sisters. In 1912, she introduced them to D.W. Griffith, the director, who put them through a bizarre audition. He pulled out a prop gun and fired at the young women, then chased them. He was so impressed with their reactions that he hired them on the spot. Over the next decade, Lillian Gish would make 40 films with Griffith.
Among them was 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation.” That film about a Southern family’s struggles during the Civil War and Reconstruction is roundly condemned today for its sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. In its day, however, the film was a sensation and made Gish a star.
Peril in Vermont
Gish and the rest of Griffith’s company descended on White River Junction in March 1920 to shoot the ice scenes for “Way Down East.” The winter had been short on snow, so the company had spent the time filming indoor scenes at Griffith’s studio in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Gish endured a regime of regular cold baths to prepare for the grueling outdoor scenes that lay ahead. Then word arrived that a snowstorm had hit Vermont. Gish and the rest of the company packed up and headed north.
In “Way Down East,” Gish plays a young woman named Anna Moore who is wooed by a young city playboy, who tricks her by pretending to marry her. When she becomes pregnant, he deserts her. The unwed mother gives birth, but the child dies. And Anna’s troubles aren’t even over yet.
She finds work on a farm and falls in love with the farmer’s son, played by Dartmouth student Dick Barthelmess. But the playboy owns the farm next door, and he gets word to the farmer about Anna’s pregnancy.
Morally outraged, because he’s been misinformed about the details of Anna’s past, the farmer casts the poor woman out of his house and into the teeth of a driving blizzard. Anna tries to cross the river, but faints on the ice, which promptly breaks off, sending the floe she lies upon downriver, toward the waterfall.
When the farmer’s son learns what his father has done, he chases after her and, braving the shifting ice floes, snatches her up just before she would have slipped over the falls.
The scenes were shot mostly without stand-ins for Gish and Barthelmess. But one local woman, Rachel Gordon, whose handwritten recollections of the filming are at the Vermont Historical Society, remembered that a stand-in for Gish fell into the freezing White River. She was scooped out, taken to a nearby house, stripped of her clothes and wrapped in blankets. A doctor arrived and gave her medicine in hopes of warding off pneumonia; then she was put to bed for several days before she was allowed to return to her hotel.
For the three weeks of shooting in Hartford, Gish risked a similar dunking. She had to venture onto the bobbing ice for about 20 takes a day.
“I had the bright idea to have my hand and hair trail in the water,” she recalled a half century later. “I thought it would be more realistic having the girl swoon from exhaustion. Of course, once I had my hand in that ice-cold water in front of the camera, I couldn’t remove it. It still aches today when it gets cold.”
The weather was bitter cold during filming, the temperature stuck below zero. The cameraman had to build a fire beneath the camera to keep the lens from icing over. At least the filmmakers didn’t have to worry about the ice breaking under Gish.
The extreme cold, however, presented another problem. The river was frozen so solid they would have to make their own ice floes. Workers used saws to break off sections of ice. Sometimes they resorted to using dynamite. They held the sections in place with ropes and released them only when the director was ready. Griffith ordered a cameraman to accompany Gish on her ice floe for some shots so he could get another angle.
Townspeople crowded the riverbanks to watch the filming.
Off the set
The actors got occasionally breaks from their cold, hard work. They stayed at the comfortable Junction House (now the Hotel Coolidge). Evenings, after dinner in the large dining room, the tables would be moved away and a fiddler brought in to perform. Cast members, as well as members of the hotel staff and assorted guests, would then take part in a square dance. It wasn’t just for fun, though. Griffith wanted his actors to learn to square dance for a scene they would shoot later.
The hotel’s manager, Nathaniel Wheeler, even arranged for cast members to attend a barn dance in nearby West Lebanon, N.H.
Wheeler also plied the actors with maple syrup, which he procured from a sugarmaker in Quechee. And one day when the weather warmed enough for the sap to flow, the actors were invited to a sugaring-off party.
Sitting at long tables provided by the hotel, the actors had what for many of them must have been their first taste of sugar-on-snow, complete with plain doughnuts and pickles to cut the sweetness. The warm treatment must have been almost enough for the actors to forget the brutally cold conditions they would confront during the next day’s filming.
Shooting ended as spring arrived. The actors packed their bags and left, perhaps wondering whether their hardships in Vermont had been worth it. They needn’t have worried. “Way Down East” drew large crowds when it opened later that year in New York.
And the icy river scene is what many of them would remember most. Because of the pains Gish endured, the scene seemed real to people – perhaps too real for some.
Years later, Gish explained people’s reactions to the scene: “So many people fainted that Mr. Griffith had a trained nurse in the ladies’ room. But he didn’t want word to get out about the fainting. It would have been bad for business.”
Mark Bushnell writes a column called “Then Again” about Vermont history for VTDigger.