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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.............................
In the 1960's Time called "Way Down East" the greatest film ever made and had no less than Charles Laughton & Lillian Gish to back it up. The scene of Richard Barthelmess chasing after Miss Gish on the ice flow is still wonderful and one of cinema's classics. A film that is well worth seeing.
Skilled early film makers, like D. W. Griffith, made the most of the
technology available at the time. Way Down East, produced in 1920, is
an exciting visual experience with dramatic views of natural hazards
like snow storms and ice strewn rivers. There are also romanticized
pastoral settings that serve, in one way, to evoke the past, and, in
another, to make the harsh environment scenes seem even harsher.
A title tells us that the film occurs in the recent past, but most of the film looks like 20 to 30 years before 1920, or about 1890 or 1900. Lillian Gish's costumes are deliberately old-fashioned, and Richard Barthelmess's character seems based on the ideal 1900's man: strong but sensitive. Cars, telephones, and electricity are kept to a minimum. In the United States in 1920 many rural areas were 30 years behind, but Griffith's intention is not accuracy as much as mood. Setting the story in the vague past suggests a nobler, more romantic era.
Griffith does not seem to be an actor's director. A few of the supporting performances are hideously exaggerated, while some of the stronger performances, like that of Mary Hay, give the impression of originating from the artist. Lillian Gish's naturalness and inherent screen magnetism are well-suited for such a directorial environment. She gives a believable, appealing performance.
This was a popular, culturally influential film. It is easy to understand how thrilling it must have been to 1920 audiences.
Way Down East (1920)
Directed by D.W Griffith
Starring Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess
This big modest spectacle is one of Griffith's best! This tale full of melodrama is about Gish (Beautiful as ever!) being lost in a world full of lies and greed and suddenly she founds Barthelmess, but not all is perfect when Sherman arrives the place. Creative, entertaining, funny and sweet - maybe a bit too religious, but that doesn't care if you see that magnificent scene of Gish and Barthelmess in the ice in the waterfall. One of the greatest. A must see!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The reason I say that WAY DOWN EAST is a very good film for 1920 is
that even by the mid-1920s, the style film this is would probably have
seemed a bit old fashioned. So, compared to late silents it's not a
great movie by any stretch but it is a decent movie nonetheless and
better than most films of the day. So why is it old fashioned? Well,
like the characters in many of the earlier D.W. Griffith films, the
peopleof in the movie often seem very one-dimensional--like a 19th
century morality play. For example, Lillian Gish plays a wonderful
virginal sort, there is the town tattletale, the judgmental man, the
cad and the professor--all stereotypes instead of real people. But
despite all this, it still is a very good film.
WAY DOWN EAST begins with a poor cousin (Lillian Gish) going to the big city to spend time with her rich relatives. At this home, she is spotted by a total cad (Lowell Sherman) and he eventually asks her to marry him. However, the marriage is fake--and Gish has no idea it's not legal. After getting her pregnant, Sherman runs away--leaving her to have the baby on her own. Soon the baby dies and Gish is forced to go look for work in another town. There she gets work as a maid and becomes a beloved member of the family--that is, until word gets to the townsfolk that Gish is "that kind of woman"! This leads to an amazingly climactic scene on the ice (reminscent of the video game "Frogger") that you just have to see to believe and it's one of the best scenes Griffith ever filmed---very tense and amazing even when seen almost 90 years later.
What's to like about the film? Well, the biggest star of the movie are the special effects and camera work. As mentioned above, the ice scene is simply amazing, though the snow storm is also very realistic and well done. Also, there were some very lovely camera shots--such as the scene by the lake. All these made this a first-class project.
Overall, this is an important film but one that I would recommend mostly to people who already love silents. They will enjoy it considerably. However, for people not accustomed to and appreciative of the silents, it's probably one to hold off on--as you may be too quick to dismiss it because of the preachy plot and one-dimensional characters. For 1920, it was quite the accomplishment.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Another slow and labourous Griffith melodrama about a lustful rich man
who proposes to a country woman not out of love but desire. Griffith
liked his morals applied with glue and heavy duty nails before being
wrapped in tape, so I guess you ought to realise that this is a bad
thing to do. Well, just in case it wasn't obvious enough through
watching the film, he stuck some title cards at the front before the
thing even begins to tell you so. If you like your education in the
scripted costume of 1920's wealth and grandeur, this is the school for
Being a Griffith film the shots and cinematography - his strong point - are nice - although the constant vignetting bugged me almost as much as the story. Instead of focusing your gaze on the subject as intended, they distract you from it. The acting is also over-exaggerated.
Seeing this film with live and competent piano accompaniment helps no end in rescuing the dire simplisticness of the pseudo-moralizing in this over-blown melodramatic soap-opera brought to us by the man who glorified the "heroic" KKK in his pro-slavery epic The Birth of a Nation, and left nothing to the imagination when it came to naked ladies and blood-letting in his ironically entitled pseudo-religious epic, Intolerence. Despite it's reputation, the final sequence on the ice is quite badly filmed, for obvious safety reasons, and the continuity errors therein are as over-the-top as the whole melodramatic grande finale itself. The subject matter is worthy, the treatment is manipulative and despicable; no better than a fifth rate cut-price imported dubbed Spanish TV soap-opera.
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