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WAY DOWN EAST was an old-fashioned melodrama even in 1920 when D.W.
Griffith decided to film it. It's the kind of story that leaves itself
open for spoofing, but Griffith approaches the story of a "mock
marriage" and its aftermath with earnestness and a great eye for
Aiding Griffith in bringing this story to life are three great stars: Lillian Gish as Anna, Richard Barthelmess as David, and Lowell Sherman as caddish Lennox. The supporting cast includes New England "types" that almost parody Dickens. Kate Bruce is the staunch mother, Creighton Hale the ditzy professor, Vivia Ogden the town gossip, Burr McIntosh the intolerant squire, Emily Fitzroy runs the hotel, etc.
The story of love, betrayal, tolerance, and redemption is slow moving and has (as usual in a Griffith film) subplots, but like the very river, all the actions and events slowly come together for the finale that left 1920 audiences in a frenzy. Indeed the ending is among the most famous in all silent films.
Gish is quite beautiful here. In her opening scene she is in her parlor with her mother making a broom, holding up the straw so that we see only her white cap and large expressive eyes. She's stunning. As Anna she goes through the gamut of shy maiden, young lover, wronged woman, timid servant, and town jezebel. Barthelmess is solid as the young and innocent David who falls in love with the servant girl.
Their final scenes in the blizzard (filmed on Long Island in a real storm) on the icy river (filmed in White River Junction, VT) are totally amazing. And they did not use stunt doubles. As Gish lies exhausted on the piece of ice she may or may not know that it's heading for the falls. There are scenes were her hand and hair trail in the icy river. Just amazing. Barthelmess uses the breaking ice as a trail so that he can reach Gish before it's too late. There are several shots where he falls off the ice or the ice breaks under him and he plunges into that wintry river. The entire sequence is as thrilling today as it was in 1920.
Gish once wrote that her long hair froze solid from being in the river water and snapped off with the ice.
WAY DOWN EAST is a great film.
This enormously successful film lives up to its legendary reputation.
But it's also disappointing.
The atmospheric splendor of the cinematography and the melancholy mood set by the original musical score (on the Kino Video release) lull the viewer into the sense of reverie essential to appreciating this charming representation of countrified America facing the encroachment of big city evils.
The story is well-told by director D.W. Griffith, and the moral message of Woman's spiritual virtuosity is exploited without the sermonizing of some of his other pictures. There is a sensitivity and naturalness exhibited in the unfolding narrative of Way Down East and a graceful style seen in none of his other epic-scale ventures. In bringing the sweetness of his famous one-reelers to a major feature film, Griffith captured an almost magical tone and ambiance that distinguishes Way Down East as a masterful piece of intimate storytelling, rivaling Broken Blossoms (1919) in its intensity and sheer beauty.
However, it must be said that Griffith's sideline excesses in plot development are many and varied, hindering the progression of the central tale of Anna Moore's struggle to escape her past and search out a new life. Annoying bits of slapstick humor, totally at odds with the romance and tragedy of the main story, are indulged in while overly sentimental touches, like long, wistful close-ups, are equally aggravating.
Though otherwise superbly acted by Lillian Gish (Anna), her role is marred by the fact that some of her more emotional scenes are unnecessarily drawn out by Griffith. This is particularly true in the sequence of the death of Anna's illegitimate newborn.
Richard Barthelmess, as David Bartlett, Anna's sweetheart and savior, is outstandingly effective, as is Lowell Sherman as the decadent cad Lennox Sanderson who deceives Anna. Not all of the supporting cast was as competent or convincing, due largely to out-of-place comedic impersonations.
One huge stand out is Mary Hay who leaps onto the screen with a refreshing vivacity. The wit she imparts to her small role is the only really clever humor in the movie.
Long-forgotten today, but much discussed at the time, was the cameo appearance in the movie's prologue of popular New York society girl Mrs. Morgan Belmont, who played Diana Tremont, one of Anna's snooty Boston cousins. To do justice to her part, as well as to form an exciting contrast to the pastoral images to follow, Griffith went all out in the costume department, hiring top fashion designer Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) to design glitzy gowns for the garden party and ball scenes.
Despite some errors in continuity, Way Down East's celebrated climax of Anna's rescue from an ice-flow as it drifts toward a roaring waterfall, is perfectly paced and as thrilling as it must have been to audiences in 1920. Considering the limited special effects of the day, the scenes are amazingly realistic. Gish lying unconscious on an ice cake as it zooms to destruction, her arm trailing in the current, is one of the most familiar silent film shots, even to people who know next to nothing about the genre, and although it has become almost cliché, its power is undiminished.
As a story, Way Down East is both fabulous and frustrating but its photographic beauty and emotional resonance are almost unparalleled in the Griffith oeuvre.
Lillian Gish and fellow co-stars really bring home this great drama. It's interesting and exciting and wonderful to watch. Surely a legend of the 20th Century, Mr Griffith outdid himself with this successful film and Gish can only be praised for a great performance. Her pain and despair can be felt in the scene's where she realises she's been 'betrayed' and she nurses her child while he slips from this world. It's acting at it's finest for no words were necessary, it's all in 'the look'. Certainly 10 out of 10, but if I were to make one comment about this film in the negative, it would be it's length. Perhaps 15 to 20 minutes too long. Otherwise it's majestic.
"Way Down East" will probably be a hard pill for many filmgoers to
swallow, as it's a silent and very long, but I would recommend you give
it a try, as it's also pretty entertaining.
Lillian Gish gets put through her melodramatic paces by the granddaddy of modern cinema, D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a master at building his movies up to intolerably exciting finales, and this film is no exception. A classic set piece puts Gish trying to escape across a frozen river, jumping from one drifting block of ice to the next. And consider that this was in the day before special effects, and it's even quite possible that Gish did all of the stunts herself.
A slice of early cinema that goes down easily if you give it the chance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Today's films dissect with the latest pseudotheories and experimental
science every aspect of human relationships. Technology run wild turns the
screen into an advertisement for a future we ought to be wary about. How
refreshing it is to stop the clock and enjoy D.W. Griffith's "Way Down
East." A friend who loves silent film lent me her tape last night and I've
seen it twice, putting aside for four hours everything from nonsense at work
to the grim reality of war in Iraq.
D. W. Griffith's name comes to the fore most frequently, and not necessarily in a complimentary light, with often polarized discussions of America's history as depicted in movies, especially with regard to race. "Way Down East" doesn't touch on historical themes but he does candidly and openly explore moral issues that in his time were either evaded or resolved with harsh condemnation of those who strayed from the path of religious dogma-inspired righteousness.
The wonderful Lillian Gish is Anna Moore, who loses her mother and seeks, being bereft of money, shelter from rich relatives. A very familiar story (most recently brought to the screen in the latest adaptation of Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby"). Taken in, albeit grudgingly, by a rich aunt and treated with lighthearted contempt by two sisters, she meets Lennox Sanderson, played by Lowell Sherman. Sanderson is a cad, a seducer of innocent virgins. Rather than the sneering evildoer so familiar to devotees of silent films, Sherman invests his role with a mixture of cruel cunning and stupid incomprehension of the harm he causes to Anna. He stages a mock wedding to get her into bed and subsequently abandons the pregnant Anna. The depth of his acting starkly brings the shallowness of his character to life.
After losing her baby, Anna is taken in as a house servant by a sanctimonious farmer who blindly adheres to the literal letter of biblical law. Of course his wife is a near saint. What next? A love interest for Anna which she spurns, believing herself unworthy of a good man's attention. Richard Barthelmess, who brings a manly but compassionate character to life, chases Anna demurely and respectfully from parlor room to - ice flow adrift in a raging torrent of water approaching (music increases in tempo) a waterfall.
Anna's peril on the ice is one of the most famous silent film scenes and almost eighty-five years later it still works. Largely that's because no one - no one - could film a scene like that as did D.W. Griffith.
Incidentally, in a barnyard dance scene is a very young Norma Shearer.
A remarkable film that holds a viewer's rapt attention (mine, at least) and which proves both the sometimes superfluity of words to tell a story and the lasting legacy D.W. Griffith gave us.
A young woman, after being lured into a false marriage, finds the
chance for happiness on a friendly farm WAY DOWN EAST.
David Wark Griffith, the Father of American Cinema, had his last great financial blockbuster with this highly sentimentalized silent melodrama. Always anxious to promote decency & morality with his epic films, Griffith here exposes & castigates male brutality against the weaker female, making this a stark portrayal of Good versus Evil as he follows the fortunes and misfortunes of his long-suffering heroine.
Bird-like & fragile, Lillian Gish takes the brunt of the plot upon her young shoulders. To say that she performs magnificently is only to state the expected. The wealth of emotions stealing across her lovely face give expression to her every thought, as her character struggles to maintain her equilibrium against the onslaughts hurled against her.
Richard Barthelmess portrays the quietly heroic farm lad who becomes paladin for Miss Gish during her tribulations while abiding in his home. His stalwart decency is in strong contrast to the villainy of Lowell Sherman, the rich roué whose misdeeds nearly destroy Lillian.
Griffith's broad canvas allows for detailed portraits by a fine supporting cast: a pharisaical squire (Burr McIntosh), his saintly wife (Kate Bruce), a butterfly-chasing professor (Creighton Hale), a dour landlady (Emily Fitzroy), a lazy, good-natured constable (George Neville), a jolly, oafish farmhand (Edgar Nelson), and a gossiping spinster (Vivia Ogden).
The film climaxes with one of the most famous sequences in all of Silent Cinema: Barthelmess' rescue of Miss Gish as she lies unconscious on an ice floe, speeding towards a tremendous waterfall. Filmed on Long Island in the dead of Winter, the performers were in real peril. These scenes still pack a punch and are worthy testimony to Griffith's genius.
Special mention should be made of the cinematography of G. W. Bitzer, Griffith's invaluable cameraman. His beautiful photography softly illumines both the tender scenes and the bucolic vistas, giving them the quality of aged snapshots in a cherished family album.
As Gish once said, ".......Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomime, but something wonderfully expressive." It is that expressive ability, which in Talking Movies and still today, more than any other characteristic, defines the success of an actor or actress. As it was back then referred to as "The Look", this ability was Gish's trademark, and has never been done better by anyone. In Way Down East, she set the benchmark for this ability. In my opinion, the best work of her career. If you haven't seen it, do, and you'll wonder who in screen history can rival "Her Look".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
D.W. Griffith's major theme is the plight of women. In `Broken Blossoms', a title card notes that women have only two courses, marriage and prostitution, neither of which is enticing. Griffith's women, usually played by Lillian Gish, are almost entirely powerless; at any moment they can fall victim to the violent, sexual appetites of men. In `The Birth Of A Nation', a woman is chased off a cliff by a would-be rapist. In `Intolerance', only an unexpected gunshot prevents a man's wife from being sexually attacked by his boss. Griffith, despite frequently being labeled a racist, is at heart a moralist, and he intends for his films to help men sympathize with women so that they can better protect them. `Way Down East' may be the strongest case in point. It opens with the director's explicit plea for men to properly treat the opposite gender. It then introduces an unusually powerful Griffith female character, a woman with sex appeal, only to spend the next two hours demonstrating how easily even this woman can be victimized. Griffith, with the help of an extraordinary performance by Gish, succeeds in building sympathy for the girl, but by requiring that her naivete, frailty, and dependence be such a large part of her appeal, Griffith renders woman all the more powerless.
I just finished watching Way Down East. It was extremely powerful and moving. Gish is at her best, and while she may take getting used to if you've never seen her before, because she is a bit twittery, she is also a unique beauty with enormously expressive eyes and nervous mannerisms that make her perfect in this role as the poor innocent done wrong by the sophisticated older man. Like they say, the story's as old as the hills, and I was surprised but pleased at the happy ending, considering she had a baby out of wedlock--usually women were punished in the old films, even if it wasn't their fault. Little things like Richard Barthelmess petting a pigeon on the head, blossoms bouncing gently in the breeze, the play of light at sunset through Gish's hair as she stands by the river.... There's an appreciation of the beauty of nature and the gentle aspects of the human soul that's not much seen anymore. Just watching the men haying in the fields, the old barn dance, a horse and sled heading down a long avenue of tall trees is a pleasure, a record of days gone by that we don't get much chance to see anywhere else. Of course Gish floating down the river on the ice in the denouement is a classic. I highly recommend this film to any sensitive movie-lover.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
D.W. Griffith followed up the majestic Broken Blossoms with this epic
The subtitle, "A Simple Story Of Plain People", tells only half the story. Way Down East is a parable with simple values told on a bravura scale. At the time of release the story Griffith offered seemed out of kilter with a society on the cusp of a decade of decadence. However, the Victorian messages of tolerance, charity, understanding and forgiveness seemed more pertinent than ever. And as much as the film is an affirmation of love, honest living and general goodness, it is also takes a swipe at the puritanical aspects of Christianity. It became one of the highest grossing films of the 1920's.
The story is one of hardship and of suffering. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a naive country girl sent to stay as a "poor relation" with her cousins in the city where she falls under the influence of a cad Lennox Sanderson (deliciously played Lowell Shermann) who sets up a false wedding and tricks the infatuated Anna into sleeping with him. Inevitably, Anna quickly falls pregnant and Sanderson absconds leaving her to face her fate alone. And it is a terrible fate. She returns home but her mother soon dies and then, in one of the films most poignant scenes, the illegitimate newborn child that will be her curse dies in her arms in a boarding house. It is soon realised that Anna has no husband and she becomes a pariah; unable to find work and told to leave her board.
She is forced to wander to find work and, finally, she stumbles across a farm owned by the puritanical Squire Bartlett. At first he turns Anna away, but his wife speaks to him of Christian scripture and they take her in. She lives a blameless, hardworking life with the Bartletts and slowly finds herself falling in love with the Bartletts son David (Richard Barthelmess) but the cross she bears prevents her from giving in to her feelings. This is only amplified when she discovers that Sanderson owns an estate adjacent to the Bartletts and he puts pressure on her to leave. However, her secret is only eventually when she is recognised by her old landlady. She is cast out into the blizzard by the Squire but not before she exposes Sanderson (who is present) as the architect of her doom. Wandering into the freezing night she finally passes out on a drifting glacier leading to one of the most exciting and jaw-dropping climaxes of Silent cinema.
Way Down East was a labour of love for Griffith. The photography is some of the finest he was to ever produce whilst he waited for the seasons to change and for nature to flourish in order to capture and represent the changing moods and emotions of his characters. Similarly, the final moments on the ice floes of the Mamaroneck river is one of the great location sequences. Gish herself (who died in 1993 aged 99) never regained full feeling in her hand from having it draped in the icy water for so long.
This film is open to accusations of being old fashioned, but I feel anybody who levels such claims would be missing the point. This is melodrama of grand proportions and it carries within it messages and morals that are universal and timeless. And when these messages are carried by an actress as mesmerising and as dignified as Lillian Gish then, as Way Down East undoubtedly proves, no amount of generational drift can render them obsolete.
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