02 January 2014

How I Feel About Winter

Yes, I know it is only the beginning of January and, yes, I know that I am being melodramatic. But I think I know how Lillian Gish felt when she was stranded on that ice floe, floating toward the falls and an almost certain chilly end.  Winter in the Northeast  is not for the squeamish, as the 17th century Puritan immigrants learned to their dismay.   Sailors have long known that the north Atlantic in winter is devilishly cold and dangerous and, even in those among us whose ancestors disembarked at Nantasket in February, the blood runs thin.
Two centuries after, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Blithedale Romance (1852) set in southeastern Massachusetts, his protagonist Hollingsworth trudged through a landscape that reads like a description of East Alaska.  Not for nothing is the International Center for Sub-Arctic Studies located in St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
Back to the photograph, those snowy hills  are the Green Mountains of Vermont and, although you can't see it, New Hampshire is on the east side of the Connecticut River.  Nearby on the Vermont side, is the village of White River Junction, where the cast and crew filming D.W. Griffith's Way Down East stayed during the  location shooting, an unusual experiment in realism for a Hollywood movie in 1920.   Not for Griffith the white-painted cornflakes of Hollywood snow!  Some think Way Down East is the greatest movie ever made.  If it is, it is thanks to a cast and crew of hardy souls, including Griffith's unsung film editor, Rose Smith. The making of Way Down East was a heroic effort by all, as Gish describes it.

”‘Our house was near the studio and I was to report to work at any hour that snow started to fall, as we had both day and night scenes to film.  It was a late but severe winter; even Long Island Sound was frozen over.  .... Winter dragged on and was almost over and still those important scenes hadn’t been filmed. The blizzard finally struck in March.  Drifts eight feet high swallowed the studio.  Mr Griffith, Billy, the staff and assistant directors stood with their backs to the gale, bundled up in coats, mufflers, hats and gloves.  To hold the camera upright, three men lay on the ground, gripping the tripod legs.  A small fire burned directly beneath the camera to keep the oil from freezing.
Again and again, I struggled through the storm.  Once I fainted – and it wasn’t in the script.  I was hauled to the studio on a sled, thawed out with hot tea and then brought back to the blizzard, where the others were waiting.  We filmed all day and all night, stopping only to eat, standing near a bonfire.  We never went inside, even for a short warm-up.  The torture of returning to the cold wasn’t worth the temporary warmth. The blizzard never slackened.  At one point, the camera froze.  There was an excruciating delay as the men, huddled against the wind, trying to get another fire started.  At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open."

The Connecticut River was completely frozen that winter, but no matter.   When you are a  director  from Hollywood,  where you have only to imagine something for it to be done,  you will go to any lengths to achieve verisimilitude.   Of course you will dynamite the river to get the ice to cooperate.  "Lights! Camera! Action! Cue the ice floes!"  But there was an uncontrolled explosion and someone got hurt, and Gish, who had to leap  from flow to flow during repeated takes, deserved as much credit for her courage as for her affecting performance as the indomitable waif, Anna. Do you need to have the "psychotic nuttiness" of a D. W. Griffith to survive winter in the Northeast? No, but it can't hurt.

Still photos from Way Down East - Lilian Gish. Connecticut River, White River Junction, Vermont,  United Artists, 1920.


Timothy Cahill said...

Jane, what a tale! You've put "Way Down East" on my must-see list. Thanks for making this latest snowstorm more bearable.

Jane said...

Tim, I wrote this piece awhile ago and saved it for the New Year. I did not anticipate that the weather gods would make my scheduling appear so timely.

Tania said...

New York, -8° C. Brussels, + 11° C.

Jane said...

Tania, is that cold for Brussels?

Tania said...

Absolutely not! They are surprising temperatures in January. Plants still bloom on the terrace, it never arrived to this period of the year!
Courage for the even colder intense cold announced at your home.