Way Down East

"Essential"

Way Down East Review


The Film Society of Lincoln Center presided over an emotional encounter with the ancients when an archival print of D. W. Griffith's Way Down East from The Museum of Modern Art was screened at The Walter Reade Theater to a well attended collection of grey-haired elders, solo middle-aged cinephiles, and young city-trash couples out to buy an outré thrill. One thing the group had in common was that none of the people present were alive when Griffith's film was originally released in 1920.

This hoary melodrama was Griffith's last big hit and, in fact, his biggest moneymaker since the epochal The Birth of a Nation, the film so much of a bonanza for Griffith that it kept his independent Mamaroneck studios running through the several lean years of box office failures that followed Way Down East.

Griffith was criticized at the time for buying the rights to the play Way Down East, an old-fashioned barnburner from the 1890s firmly entrenched in eighteenth century Americana and Victorian ideals. The play was a clichéd, but very popular, warhorse and purchasing the film rights wasn't cheap, costing twice as much as Griffith's entire budget for The Birth of a Nation.

On the surface, the film is very much in the boo/hiss mode, detailing the plight of innocent country girl Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) who winds up in The Big City and becomes the punching bag victim of a fake marriage, undergoes the death of an illegitimate child, rejection by a stuffy and unfeeling society, and who becomes so beset by tragedy that she is blind to the genuine love offered to her in the form of an equally naïve farmer's son, David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess).

The title cards written by Griffith to explain the film to the masses does not bode well to what will follow. Introduced as "A Simple Story of Plain People," Griffith proceeds to vomit up a crackpot prelude:

Since the beginning of time, Man has been polygamous -- even the saints of Biblical history. But the Son of Man gave a new thought and the world is growing nearer the true Ideal. He gave us One Man for One Woman. Not by our laws -- our statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws -- but with the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in purity and constancy. Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any other point in the history of mankind. Because not yet has the Man-Animal reached this high standard -- except perhaps in theory.

Yikes!

But then Griffith, shockingly for Griffith, undercuts this hogwash by toning down the cornball and, with an unerring pictorial sense of composition, mood and sharp direction, delivers a powerful emotional wallop. Griffith's depiction of a New England countryside of an indeterminate time is lyrical and romantic in the most cinematic sense -- cynicism banished from the frame and cast of into snow-blinding storm. Here is Griffith at the top of his game, telling a tale in a silent film in clean and crisp illustrative terms, never meandering too much and (despite of the film's almost three-hour length) propelling the tale forward with relentless and masterful editing. It all leads to the iconic, climactic last-minute rescue during a raging ice blizzard, where Gish, passed out on an ice floe, helplessly heads for almost certain oblivion over raging falls (a New York hipster cracked wise before the start of the film wondering if this restored print contained "more ice floe footage").

The film sounds old-fashioned but really isn't. Griffith sabotages the musty storyline by criticizing dense-minded reformers, inverting the smug Puritanical justifications of the bigoted characters, and providing depth to his bad guy character (the oily Lowell Sherman) by having him not only look like a big, fat, rich baby (eliciting some sympathy for his debaucheries) but permitting him to get away scot-free to continue on a new blighted path of depravity (this guy gets away with everything).

And then there is Lillian Gish. Gish pulls out all the stops, her emotions running the gamut from Chaplinesque comedy (Griffith includes shots of Gish as a lone figure walking away from the camera down a dusty country road), to heart-tugging scenes sadness, to unbridled sequences of raw hysteria -- witnessing her performance on the big screen is like watching a close relation wig out in front of you. Gish provides an abject lesson in screen acting and brings home the importance and effectiveness of seeing a film in a theater with a crowd. If you are not moved at the scene of Gish baptizing her dead baby, then you should check the obituaries of your local paper to see if you are listed.

Many of Griffith's features suffer from sententious moralizing, a sense of God speaking to the masses, and outright racism. But Way Down East highlights the greatness of Griffith without having to sit through the Sermon on the Mount or the Ride of The Klan. In Way Down East, Griffith's psychotic nuttiness, for once, didn't get in the way of a good film.



Way Down East

Facts and Figures

Run time: 145 mins

In Theaters: Friday 3rd September 1920

Distributed by: Kino Lorber

Production compaines: D.W. Griffith Productions

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 16 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 8.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: D.W. Griffith

Producer: D.W. Griffith

Starring: as Anna Moore, Richard Barthelmess as David Bartlett, Lowell Sherman as Lennox Sanderson, Burr McIntosh as Squire Bartlett, Kate Bruce as Mother Bartlett

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