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After his success of recreating the role he had on Broadway in The Farmer Takes A Wife, Henry Fonda was given another role as a country rustic in the sound remake of the D.W. Griffith classic Way Down East. It's a considerably cut down version of the Griffith film and it went into production without the female lead originally intended.
Janet Gaynor days before the production started got injured and at the last minute Rochelle Hudson substituted for her. While Hudson wasn't bad in the part, Gaynor had taken a patent out on portraying country girls and the film might have rated a notch or two more had she been teamed again with Fonda.
Hudson returns to the down home Maine section of her birth after a fling with Edward Terhune that left her pregnant and giving birth to an infant that died. No one knows of her disgrace and she gets work at the farm of Russell Simpson and Spring Byington and their son Henry Fonda.
Wouldn't you know it, after falling in love with Fonda Terhune returns to the area and starts taking up with the rich Astrid Allwyn who is a friend of Hudson's. Terhune is also a friend and neighbor of Fonda's family.
Of course it all blows up which leads to a cut down version of the famous climax of a lot of the principal cast members floating on the ice in the dead of Maine's winter during a howling storm. I would not be surprised if they used the original footage from the Griffith classic, making sure not to have any closeups of Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, etc. I could not recognize any faces during that sequence myself.
A couple of performances really stand out. The first is Russell Simpson who made a career of rustic types usually beneficent. Here however he's flint hearted old Puritan who has no toleration of 'sin' of any kind. Married to Byington they make quite a contrasting pair as she's a kind hearted soul. Fonda takes after mother.
The second is that of Margaret Hamilton who if she wasn't the Wicked Witch Of The West in The Wizard Of Oz would have this as her career role. She plays the head of a gossip circle in the town and all they do is sit around a quilt and pretend to sew, but just tear down all others around them. Hamilton takes on the role of investigative reporter concerning Hudson and exposes her transgression to the town and more importantly to Simpson, Fonda, and Byington.
Years ago I worked in a place where there was a circle of women who did precisely what Hamilton does here who are all dead now. Their jobs weren't exactly stressful so all they did for about a quarter of a century was go to work and sit at their desks and just gossip about everything and everyone. The head of the place called their section the Poison Pond and seeing Hamilton and her set reminded me so much of that little corner of a place I worked at so long ago.
This version of Way Down East is all right with the cast getting good direction from Henry King. But no new ground is covered from the silent classic, in fact this one is a retreat.
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