Lillian Gish in Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920)
How they shot this scene I don’t even know.
From Bright Lights:
…in Way Down East's climax…Lillian Gish, David Barthelmess, and Billy Bitzer's beleaguered camera submit to an actual, godawful blizzard, brusquely defining itself on screen by allowing little more than ten feet visibility. Ice forms on Gish's eyelashes, and, when she collapses in a drift of real snow, the actress, we learn, had actually fainted from the exposure, and this before being told to collapse all over again on a real ice floe on a real, freezing river […]
There’s no doubt that the irreducible actuality of the blizzard/ice floe sequences is the major reason they complete Griffith’s vision so successfully. The cold and the dim light especially challenged Bitzer and his camera, but as a result, the often-compromised photography has its own visceral integrity. As for the performers, the blizzard shoot was bad enough for Gish, but the weeks of photography on the river had both actors submitting to further dangers and potential frostbite.
Shooting Anna’s rescue in ferocious weather and on real, bobbing ice floes — and visibly threatening the actors’ lives in the process — is thereby something of a stunt, just as making a movie is, fundamentally, a stunt. But in D. W.’s hands, it’s a stunt with an expressive intent that’s both intuitive and considered.