Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer (1996)


Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer (1996)

  • Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer
  • 1996 by Princeton University Press
  • Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540
  • In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, Chichester, West Sussex

Noting that filmmakers and critics have often used motherhood as a metaphor to describe film production and the cinematic apparatus, Lucy Fischer undertakes the first investigation of how the topic of motherhood presents itself throughout a wide range of film genres. Until now melodramas have figured most prominently in discussions of maternity; these films, along with musicals and screwball comedies, have traditionally been viewed as “women’s” cinema. Fischer, however, defies gender- based classifications to show how motherhood has played a fundamental role in the overall cinematic experience. She begins by arguing that motherhood is often treated as a site of crisis—for example, the theme of the mother being blamed for the ills afflicting her offspring—then shows the tendency of certain genres to specialize in representing a particular social or psychological dimension in the thematics of maternity.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Noxious Nannies

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a work whose four part historical structure is sutured by the maternal image of Lillian Gish and by quotations from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Like the poet’s words (which conjure a musical theme), Griffith’s poignant visual trope positions the innocent madonna outside the universe of political injustice. Wallace’s verse is of a more cynical tone, implicating motherhood in the system of corrupt power. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle “shuttles” (as Whitman would have it) between these two positions: one attached to the biological mother and the other assigned to her surrogate.

Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

Silent Melodrama



With your milk. Mother, I swallowed ice. And here I am now, my insides frozen. . . . My blood no longer circulates to my fect or my hands, or as far as my head. It is immobilized, thickened by the cold. Obstructed by icy chunks which resist its flow. (Luce Irigaray)

To state that Way Down East | 1920 i is a Him about the maternal body seems an exercise in cliche. For it recounts the familiar story of Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a country girl seduced (in a mock marriage) by an urbane playboy, then left to bear his illegitimate child. While the film’s narrative connections to motherhood are abundantly clear, a maternal discourse reverberates on more submerged levels of the text, invoking its literary origins, its social context, its metaphoric structures, and its celluloid existence.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

The Literary Body

[ Personally it is always pleasing to recognize . . . the fact that our cinema is not altogether without parents and without pedigree, without a past (Sergei Eisenstein)

Like many works of the silent era, D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East its creative “maternity” to literature. For Sergei Eisenstein, this “‘genetic’ line of descent” is a positive feature, lending cinema a prestigious “birth place”. Other critics have found this artistic lineage more problematic, with film configured as an “illegitimate” offspring. As Judith Mayne notes (in a passage reminiscent of Way Down East), “It has been stated over and over again, in condemnations of the cinema as an inferior art form, that if the cinema is heir to the novel it is a bastard child”. Retrospectively, even Eisenstein’s phrasing abounds with double meaning. His pride in a cinema “with a past” collides, in Way Down East, with the shame of a woman “with a past”—a notion that dogs the life of Anna Moore.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Way Down East was written in the mid- 1890s by dramatist Lottie Blair Parker. As he recounts in Showman, producer William A. Brady found her original text promising but flawed, and commissioned its “elaboration” by “play-doctor” Joseph R. Grismer. While the Manhattan premiere of the melodrama was financially disappointing, the play succeeded on the road. When the production returned to New York, it enjoyed a triumphant run. As Brady writes in “Drama in Homespun,” “The show was a repeater and it took twenty-one years to wear it out” . Ultimately, Grismer published a novelization of the play in 1900. It is this literary property that Griffith claimed (for $175,000), not from its “natural mother” (Parker), but from its “adoptive father” (Brady), who had shrewdly acquired the rights (Brady, Showman, Henderson, 215). Many were shocked by Griffith’s interest in this antique, “by-gosh” melodrama. Lillian Gish recalled that Hollywood “thought privately that [he] had lost his mind”. Griffith was to make considerable changes in the literary material. While Parker’s play begins after Anna’s tragic mistake (and slowly discloses the circumstances of her transgressive maternity), Griffith’s narrative starts with her seduction. While Parker’s play climaxes in the “sensation scene” of a winter snowstorm, Griffith concludes with Anna’s spectacular rescue from a waterfall and ice floe. Using a bodily (and Frankensteinian) metaphor for cinematic paternity, Martin Williams claims that “Griffith . . . breathe[d] new life into [the] old bones” of his literary prototype. Arthur Lennig deems this process the “birth” of Way Down East. Griffith’s faith in his source was well-founded. According to Gish, Way Down East played for more than a year on Broadway and “made more money than any other Griffith film except The Birth of a Nation.”” Significantly, his “bastard” cinematic progeny played for “legitimate” theater prices.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

The Actress -Body

All that winter, whenever Mr. Griffith saw an ice cake, he wasn’t satisfied till he had me on it. (Lillian Gish)

Miss Gish was the gamest little woman in the world It was really pathetic to see the forlorn little creature huddled on a block of ice and the men pushing it off into the stream. . . . But the cold was bitter and Miss Gish was bare-headed and bare-handed and without a heavy outer coat so it was necessary at intervals to bring her in and get her warm. Sometimes when the ice wouldn’t behave she was almost helpless from the cold. (Lee Smith)

It is not surprising that, in discussing Anna’s plight, Wexman makes reference to “Gish’s frail body,” for the production of Way Down East has become notorious in film history for its demands on its performers. Shooting the rescue sequence on location (at White River Junction, Vermont; Farmington, Connecticut; and Mamaroneck, New York), the cast and crew were subjected to harrowing winter conditions.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Gish recalls:

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, then brought back to the blizzard. … At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and icicles like spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm, she heard a calculating Griffith shouting to the cameraman: “Billy, move in! Get that face! that face — get that face.

Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East

Commenting on this extradiegetic melodrama, Robert Henderson wryly notes, “It must have seemed as though Griffith had turned into a Simon Legree with Lillian Gish . . . being pursued across the ice”. Griffith was all but obsessed with his snowstorm. A technical director remembers his eternally yelling, “More ice, more ice.” The crew produced some floes by dynamiting the frozen river or by cutting it with a saw (Lennig, 110). For others, he used wooden platforms or blocks of paraffin (112). When his synthetic ice was lost down the falls, he would shout, “How long would it take to build more ice?” (110-12). In addition to artificial ice, Griffith occasionally employed “simulacra” for his actors: either dummies or “doubles” for his principle players. Significantly, while Griffith was freezing Gish on the river’s ice, he was also (like Lennox Sanderson) giving her the “cold shoulder,” looking for her amorous “double.” As Wexman notes, Griffith’s condemnation of male inconstancy in the film “was especially ironic given the director’s personal situation, for he was then in the process of transferring his own affections from Lillian Gish … to Carol Dempster, whom he would star in future productions. Thus, if Gish had cause to suffer at that moment in history, it was Griffith himself who was to blame”.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer 1996 – front cover

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