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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
From director D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation, Orphans of the Storm), this is one of the first few silent films to be listed in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I am obviously keen to complete as much of it as possible, and it was easy to get the chance to see this title. Basically Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) is the rich, handsome man-about-town, but he is amongst those that are exceptionally selfish and think only of themselves and their own pleasure, and he has found himself a vulnerable victim to be part of his inconsiderate scheme. Anna Moore (Intolerance's Lillian Gish) is the innocent poor country girl who meets Lennox, who convinces her he has feelings, and she is tricked into believing a fake wedding, and he just he just uses her, has his way with her, and then he leaves her when he finds out she is pregnant with his baby. The child is born and named Trust Lennox, but she has no choice but to care for the baby herself, and after some time tragedy strikes when the baby dies, and in deep despair she wanders the streets trying to find work and ways to get by. Anna eventually finds a job working with Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), and she meets his son David (Richard Barthelmess), he falls in love with her but she rejects any attempted advances towards her because her traumatic past, and worse comes when Lennox returns. He is seen lusting after local girl Kate Brewster - the Squire's Niece (Mary Hay), and when he sees his former wife he tries to convince her to leave, possibly with him, she refuses but does promise that she won't reveal anything to anyone about the past with him. Eventually though Squire Bartlett learns from Martha Perkins (Vivia Ogden), the town gossip, about Anna's past, and in anger he throws her out into a snow storm, but before leaving she does tell about Lennox, respected by all, about what he did to her and being the father to her dead baby. While she is getting lost in the storm which rages on, a search party is formed by leader David, she is unconscious and floating down the icy river towards the waterfall, but at the last moment she is rescued by David, and in the final scene Anna and him get married. Also starring Mrs. David Landau as Anna Moore's Mother, Josephine Bernard as Mrs. Emma Tremont, Mrs. Morgan Belmont as Diana Tremont and Norma Shearer as Barn Dancer. Gish gives an eloquent and engaging performance as the young woman who goes through trauma and heartache and you can feel a lot of sympathy for, the other cast members act very well also, the visual elements definitely make the film distinctive, I admit the story without any sound was a little hard to follow at times, and the film could have been shortened somewhat, nearly lasting three hours, but with memorably watchable moments it is a worthwhile silent melodrama. Very good!
You can't keep a good story down. DW Griffith's film of Way Down East
was an adaptation of a popular play of the late 19th century, but that
play was itself a rather flagrant rip-off of the Robert Hardy novel
Tess of the D'Urbervilles. True, the ending was substantially altered,
and Way Down East's conclusions were fustily moralist compared with
Hardy's bold progressiveness, but this in a way just goes to show how
almost identical situations and characters can be adapted to suit a
variety of means. Griffith keeps the moral sentiments of the play, but
for this "elaboration" (the word used in the picture's publicity
material at the time) he craftily sheers it of its staginess to produce
a work of pure cinema.
Technically Griffith may by now have been overtaken by his peers, but he has lost none of his ability to show character and intention through meaningful staging and encouragement of naturalistic acting. For example, when Lillian Gish turns up at her rich relatives' home, no title card reveals her sense of being out of her depth, but Griffith often keeps her in long shot, emphasising the isolating vastness of the house, and this has an impact on how we view the scene. We then realise Mrs Tremont's embarrassment at having this poor cousin walk into her life by the distance the woman keeps from Gish and her awkward attempts to avoid eye contact. One of the most nicely done scenes is the one of Gish's wedding to Lowell Sherman. Unconventionally, he keeps the camera behind the pastor, obscuring the couple, and keeping a cold empty space in the foreground. This really gives us the impression that something is not right here, even though we haven't been explicitly told so yet.
What really impresses about Way Down East is its beauty, which suffuses almost every frame exquisite countryside vistas, painterly shot compositions, not to mention many radiant close-ups of Ms Gish. Griffith always liked to make his pictures pleasing to the eye, but there is method in all this gorgeousness. Griffith uses natural beauty to emphasise the idyll of the Bartlett farm, and it's no coincidence that this is at its most striking in the shots when Gish first arrives there. And Griffith continually flatters Gish with the camera, framing her tenderly and often in soft focus, creating a visual metaphor for her delicacy and purity.
Gish's acting is of top standard, far better than the hysterical hamming she displayed in the previous year's Broken Blossoms. It's also nice to see her in a proper adult role rather than the disturbingly odd little girl figure she was in that earlier picture. Richard Barthelmess is also excellent, and like Gish he is capable of expressing a lot by doing very little. Together Gish and Barthelmess give what are probably the best lead performances of any of Griffith's features. No-one else in this cast makes an exceptional impact, but none of them is outstandingly bad either.
A fair few of those supporting players appear mainly for comic relief, and there are by Griffith's standards an unusually large number of comedic interludes in Way Down East. This unfortunately was one of Griffith's biggest weak spots. Some of these gags look like they might be fairly funny in themselves, but they don't look it because Griffith keeps hammering them home with close-ups, making them seem forced and predictable. He should have taken a leaf from his pal Chaplin's book, and shown a series of jokes in a continuous shot, giving them a more natural flow and getting more laughs as a result.
Watching Way Down East also makes me wish Griffith the writer had more confidence in Griffith the director, as well as in his cast and his audience. This picture has far more intertitles than it really needs. There are several which reveal Lennox to be a bounder, but these are superfluous because there are enough clues in the way he scenes are staged and the way Lowell Sherman plays him. It would be far more satisfying for the audience if they were allowed to figure out for themselves that he is up to no good. Still, this is a comparatively small blight on what is one of DW Griffith's most visually lovely, deeply engaging and marvellously acted pictures.
Lillian Gish is regarded as probably the best actress of the silent
era, and there's a good reason for that. As Elsie Stoneman in 'The
Birth of a Nation', she appears as a reasonably serious and strong
woman. As Anna Moore in 'Way Down East', she is a much more fragile and
vulnerable character. This versatility is the mark of a good performer,
and Lillian Gish has got it. It is mostly her presence that makes this
a memorable film.
Anna Moore is a young naive girl who lives with her mother. When they begin to experience financial difficulties, Anna goes to visit some rich relatives, hoping to get assistance. During the visit, she meets the womanising Lennox Sanderson. To her, it's love. To him, it's just another adventure. Lennox deviously organises a mock marriage ceremony, and after Anna becomes pregnant, the truth comes out and he abandons her. Anna then leaves home and finds work on a farm. She doesn't know it, but Lennox lives close by and, inevitably, the two cross paths again.
'Way Down East' is not a classic, but is worth a look. The emotional elements in the film aren't given quite enough attention to leave any real impact, and the film does drag in certain spots and is about half an hour too long. The characters are well defined though, and D W Griffith punctuates the film with some amusing comical moments.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Way Down East (1920)
Friday January 26, 8:00pm, Kenyon Hall
It was D. W. Griffith's second greatest success, but when he paid an outrageous sum ( double the budget of Birth of a Nation,1915) for the rights to Way Down East (1920), everyone thought he'd lost his mind. It was the stodgy old story of a naïve woman, betrayed by a man and rejected by a moralistic society. The film was so successful it paved the way for all of Griffith's subsequent films. Way Down East also represented a major change for Griffith and his movie 'family'.
Cameraman G. W. 'Billy' Bitzer played a major part in Griffith's development. Already a seasoned cameraman when Griffith transformed himself from an actor into the greatest director of his day, Bitzer was his technical adviser, mentor and sounding board. By 1920, other cameramen had begun to ridicule Bitzer and his out of date Pathe newsreel camera. In his autobiography, Bitzer explained, " After me made Way Down East, my part in making Griffith films was that of just another cameraman." The Great director was known for discovering talent, but his head was easily turned, and the loyalty his crew and actors gave him was often a one sided affair. Griffith's favorite leading man had been Robert Herron almost from the beginning. The star of True Heart Susie (1919), Hearts of The World (1918), Intolerance (1916) and many others, had been cast aside in favor of a sophisticated new Griffith discovery, Richard Barthelmess. The night before Way Down East premiered in New York, Bobby Harron accidentally shot himself in his hotel room. He had purchased a pistol from a man in the street that was down on his luck and left it in his jacket pocket. As he took the jacket from his suitcase, the gun fell out and discharged when it hit the floor. Two days later, Bobby Herron was dead. He was twenty-six years old. Bitzer believed, " His death marked the end of an era. With Bobby's passing some thread of unity seemed to leave us."
Regardless, Way Down East was magnificent. By 1920, Lillian Gish had become an actress of considerable depth and the story, with its harrowing climax has never entirely left the cultural consciousness of the American Cinema. Gish suffered permanent nerve damage in her hand after three weeks of rehearsal and filming on a frozen river where she insisted on submerging it in the icy water. By 1922, Gish was also shown the door.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An old stage melodrama, written by Lottie Blair Parker and first
performed around 1895, the story was old fashioned even in 1920. D. W.
Griffith paid $175,000 for the film rights and a lot of people thought
he was mad. As a film for his "muse", Lillian Gish, Griffith knew
exactly what he was doing. He made the story seem so fresh and new and
the "last minute rescue" on the ice wasn't found in the original play
"A Simple Story of Plain People" was set in New England and Lillian Gish plays Anna Moore - the first scene she plays only with her expressive eyes and they show her every thought. It was truly wonderful acting. Anna is going to stay at her cousins, the Tremonts, in the hope that they will help her mother financially.
She is allowed to dress for the Tremonts ball, although not invited to attend. An eccentric aunt (Florence Short) has other ideas and with a more alluring dress makes Anna the belle of the ball. Anna makes the acquaintance of Lennox Sanderson ( a very dapper Lowell Sherman), a wealthy womanizer, who determines to seduce Anna. He persuades her to agree to a secret marriage performed by a friend that he has paid, to impersonate a clergyman. Lillian Gish is so poignant and moving as Anna - at first so wide eyed and fluttering as an innocent country girl, then as the grieving young mother forced to baptise her own baby before it dies, she gives an spellbinding performance!!!
She is forced to leave the lodgings because of gossip and the scene where she is trudging up the road, alone and forlorn, leaves a lump in your throat. She finds work at Squire Bartlett's (Burr McIntosh) residence, where she meets David (Richard Barthelmess). It seems Sanderson lives nearby and warns her to leave. David sees that she is upset and begs her to stay. She soon becomes a beloved member of the family, although the stern puritans know nothing of her past.
The land lady from the lodging house visits the local sewing circle group, sees Anna passing and then tells all she knows about her which is quickly passed on to the Squire. He promptly turns Anna out into a raging snow storm and what a storm it was!!! The ice scene looked so real because it was. Clarine Seymour, originally given the role Mary Hay inherited, supposedly died from exposure to the almost artic conditions of the location. Lillian Gish recalls suggesting letting her arm and hair fall over the ice floe for dramatic effect and three weeks later she claimed her arm still felt like an icicle.
It didn't originally receive praise from everyone - Alexander Woollcott from "The Screen" seemed to think the ice was papier mache and Robert Benchley from "Life" gave a slightly satirical review. They were both from 1920.
I gave it 9 out of 10. I also agree it was slightly too long and there was a bit too much "unfunny" humour as well.
WAY DOWN EAST (United Artists, 1920), subtitled "a simple story about
plain people," reunites director D.W. Griffith with his BROKEN BLOSSOMS
(1919) co-stars, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, in an
old-fashioned story based on a vintage play that turned out to become
something of a commercial success and one of the true classics of the
silent screen to be still remembered today. Aside from the
simple-minded story consisting of country people and snobbish
relatives, with a tragic heroine, a farm boy and an interloper of
society whose three specialties happen to be "ladies," "ladies" and
"ladies," heading the cast, it's most crucial scene, set during a
violent snow storm, is the key factor of the entire photo-play, given
the most realistic effect filmed on location in Vermont during the dead
of winter, with Gish suffering more in real life in the freezing cold
than the heroine she was portraying. And how she suffered for the art
of film making as demonstrated with the close-up of Gish's frozen face
in the snow storm sequence.
Set in a remote village in New England, the story begins with Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a poor girl living with her widowed mother (Mrs. David Landau) who has fallen into hard times. At her request, Mrs. Moore advises Anna to seek aid from her rich relatives in Boston. Upon her arrival at the Tremont mansion, the snobbish daughters treat Anna like an outsider, while playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), one of the party guests, takes a sudden interest in her. Because of her naive ways, Anna falls into the clutches of Lennox, who tricks her into a mock marriage and bound to secrecy from his father from whom he lives on his support. When Anna discovers she is going to have a child, she insists that he tell his family. Lennox on the other hand tells her the truth about not really being married, and walks out on her. After her mother dies, Anna seeks seclusion in a rooming house where she has her baby alone. Because the child is ill, she sends for a doctor, but it is too late. The child is dead. Since there is no proof of her having a husband, Anna is turned out by an unsympathetic landlady, Mrs. Poole (Emily Fitzroy), which leads her to a farm where she is taken in and cared for by the kindly Mrs. Bartlett (Kate Bruce), even though her husband, the Squire (Burr McIntosh), "the richest farmer in the neighborhood," has his suspicions. Anna finds love and happiness with their son, David (Richard Barthelmess), but things start to fall apart upon the arrival of Lennox, along with Martha Perkins (Viva Ogden), the town gossip, learning the truth about Anna's past, thus spreading the news to the Squire, who then orders the grief-stricken Anna out of his house, into the cold.
The popularity of WAY DOWN EAST prompted reissues in later years in shorter prints, with the trimming of some comedy relief and other scenes from its original 140 to 107 minutes. For decades, a 1930s reissue with Vitaphone sounding score, often similar to the underscoring of THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), was the version available for theatrical and later video cassette from various distributors, notably Blackhawk and Grapevine Video. It's interesting to point out that while this is and remains a classic of the silent screen, why television revivals were limited? The icy river sequence was clipped for the American Film Institute tribute to Lillian Gish when televised in 1983. Even by watching this scene that leaves anyone with a cold feeling would want to go see this movie. Another scene worth noting is the crucial one where Anna (Gish) performs her own baptism on her dead baby, "Trust Lennox."
In 1984, WAY DOWN EAST made news in movie magazines when, after five years of hard work, was restored to its original length and revived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, much to the delight of silent film enthusiasts. Although the shorter version is an audience pleaser, the longer version does help make sense to the missing scenes such as whatever became of Anna's mother, for example. However, comparing the two, the restored version gives credit to the leading players and their roles in the opening while the restored version, available on both VHS and DVD format through Kino Video, does not, although its re-recording to the original soundtrack sounds almost similar to the 1930s reissue, slightly slower in tempo, but good overall.
Other members of the cast include: Josephine Bernard (Mrs. Tremond); Porter Strong (Seth Holcomb); George Neville (Reuben Whipple); Edgar Nelson (Hi Holler); and Creighton Hale (Professor Sterling).
Unlike BROKEN BLOSSOMS, where the characters played by Barthelmess and Gish are of equal status, WAY DOWN EAST belongs to Gish while Barthelmess has little to do, except for the key scene near the end. As famous as WAY DOWN EAST has become, the 1935 Fox Film remake starring Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda is something to consider in comparing to the original, but as remakes go, there's no comparison to the original, especially with the sincere performance by Lillian Gish giving one of her best screen performances of his career. Regardless of this being old-fashioned film making in the D.W. Griffith tradition, it's old-fashioned appeal and timeless theme that's actually part of the charm. Watch for it whenever it plays again on Turner Classic Movies. (***)
Louise Lawson, an extra in this film, was murdered in New York City in
1924. Her killing, which remains unsolved, was one of two "Butterfly
Murders" (the other was Broadway actress Dot King) tied to alleged
It has been speculated that Lawson and King were involved with underworld figures who attempted to extort payments from the women's wealthy, married lovers.
Lawson was a young woman from Texas who came to New York and was a popular performer for the Zigfield Follies until she made her one and only movie appearance in the 1920 version of Way Down East. For two days work as an extra, she earned $20.
Lawson was found tied up in her bed and had been strangled with one of her scarves. The investigation into her death revealed that while she earned $75 per week as a performer in the Follies, she was routinely depositing several hundred dollars each week -- far in excess of anything she could have earned as an actress or performer.
Lawson is buried her hometown of Walnut Springs, Texas.
King never made any movies, but appeared in "Broadway Brevities of 1920" which played 105 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. She was found dead in her apartment on West 57th Street. Her killer attempted to strangle her, but she was killed by an overdose of chloroform.
Sources: "Which was the real Louise Lawson?" Syracuse Herald, March 16, 1924. "Mystery Beauty who earned $245 and spent $100,000" International Features Syndicate, March 1924.
Both sources include a photograph of "Way Down East" featuring Lawson as an extra in the background while Lillian Gish dances.
003: Way Down East (1920) - released 9/3/20; viewed 7/20/05.
The Polish-Soviet war breaks out. Joan of Arc is canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XV. The first commercial radio station in America opens in Detroit. The 19th Amendment is passed, guaranteeing women's suffrage.
BIRTHS: James Doohan, Hank Ketcham, Toshiro Mifune, Jack Webb, Pope John Paul II, Shelley Winters, Ray Bradbury, Charlie Parker.
DOUG: Although I did nod off for a bit of this one (a 15-minute nap cured me), we managed to get through this 2-hour 30-minute show without any fast-forwarding. I must say, I'm starting to get used to Lillian Gish's face. Those doe-eyes, that cute little mouth, that little bob haircut she wears so well. This was also the most genuinely compelling silent movie we've watched so far. I was really sucked into her character's plight, having to deal with the slimy Lowell Sherman, the callous old-world polygamist you just love to hate. The final sequence on the ice was truly riveting. I found myself wondering how they filmed the scene, and then when I couldn't, I just got sucked in further. I had heard about this sequence (Gish got permanent nerve damage in her left hand from having it drenched in the cold water for hours on end), but I didn't know it was in this movie. And hey, Richard Barthelmess is back, this time playing a real white guy. I also noticed that this movie seemed to have what could be called "sound effects," of people getting slapped or things getting hit. (I realize now that this is just a product of the soundtrack; most silent films released today come with soundtracks that were recorded decades later that include appropriate music and sound effects.)
KEVIN: On September 3, 1920, hotshot motion picture director D.W. Griffith released yet another film masterpiece, Way Down East, yet again with the wonderful Lillian Gish. Now this was a really good movie. We had trouble dozing off in the middle, as often happens watching movies regardless of quality, so we paused it and rested for fifteen minutes. That seemed to do the trick. Some new things happening with this film. Now the characters have names, Anna and Sanderson, instead of "Dear One" and "Mountain Girl." I'm sure that had been done before, but it's the first time we've seen it here. There were also sound effects. Not much, just a few knocks and slaps. Anyway, I liked this film a lot. The romance was great, very compelling, with very rich characters. That final sequence on the ice was perfect. I was really on the edge of my seat. I remembered an AFI special where they mentioned the business about Lillian Gish's hand being in the frozen cold water for hours. About two thirds into this movie, I was reminded of that sequence, and wondered if this was the movie that had it. Seeing it made me feel very confidant about the list we've compiled. Mom kept asking why we were watching these old movies, and we tried to answer her as best we could. After seeing this movie and liking it so much, I think we just want to watch lots of really good movies.
Last film viewed: Broken Blossoms (1919). Last film chronologically: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Next film viewed: The Kid (1920). Next film chronologically: The Mark of Zorro (1920).
The Movie Odyssey is an exhaustive, chronological project where we watch as many milestone films as possible, starting with D.W. Griffith's Intolerance in 1916 and working our way through, year by year, one film at a time. We also write a short review for each and every film. In this project, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of the time period, the films of the era, and each film in context, while at the same time just watching a lot of great movies, most of which we never would have watched otherwise.
This is one of the greatest dramas of the silent era, and the finest testament to the talents of D.W. Griffith. Lillian Gish offers one of the greatest performances in the history of film, not only for the famous scene where she is rescued while unconscious on the ice floes, but in countless other moments as well (most memorably when she desperately tries to blow life into her dying infant). While the film certainly has plot devices that seem hackneyed and unsophisticated to 21st century viewers, it is a drama of undeniable power and emotional resonance. Those who are only familiar with Griffith through the comparatively crude and racist "Birth of a Nation" or the episodic and confusing "Intolerance" will be surprised to find that he could tell a story in an economical and unpretentious fashion.
In my opinion this is easily one of D.W. Griffith's finest achievements. The film is somewhat under evaluated and under screened. This is disturbing since Griffith's more problematic and clearly racist and sexist films (esp. Birth of a Nation) tend to be championed as his more deserving works. This film actually is probably his most accessible and is profoundly interesting as a use of melodrama to suggest the tragedy and dread of patriarchy. Griffith's had a far more nuanced and developed sense of gender dynamics and women's oppression then his rather racist films would ever suggest. And while he was no great "critical" thinker in terms of class consciousness - the melodrama seemed to be a form that worked well for his amazing gifts (See also Grain of Wheat, Broken Blossoms). This is one of the legendary actress Lillian Gish's best performances. Also although the ice flow scene is well deserving of its fame as one of the greatest action sequences in film history - the film is much more than a mere action melodrama. The poignancy of Gish's situation as a young woman abused and inpregnated by a scoundrel is a remarkable commentary on very real conditions of life in a sexist culture. I was fully wrapped up in her journey and her story.............................
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