WAY DOWN EAST (D.W. Griffith, 1920, USA, 145m, BW)
Cast: Burr McIntosh, Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Mrs. David Landau, Mary Hay, Florence Short, Josephine Bernard, Creighton Hale, Emily Fitzroy, Patricia Fruen, Una Merkel, Vivia Ogden, Kate Bruce
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writer: D.w. Griffith, Anthony Kelly, Joseph Grismer
Running Time: 145 min.
The rich, typified by the handsome man-about-town Lennox (Lowell Sherman), are exceptionally selfish and think only of their own pleasure. Anna (Lillian Gish) is a poor country girl whom Lennox tricks into a fake wedding. When she becomes pregnant, he leaves her. She has the baby, named Trust Lennox, on her own.
When the baby dies she wanders until she gets a job with Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). David (Richard Barthelmess), Squire Bartlett's son, falls for her, but she rejects him due to her past. Then Lennox shows up lusting for another local girl, Kate. Seeing Anna, he tries to get her to leave, but she refuses to go, although she promises to say nothing about his past.
Finally, Squire Bartlett learns of Anna's past from Martha, the town gossip. In his anger, he tosses Anna out into a snow storm. Before she goes, she fingers the respected Lennox as her despoiler and the father of her dead baby. Anna becomes lost in the raging storm while David leads a search party. In the famous climax, the unconscious Anna floats on an ice floe down a river towards a waterfall, until rescued at the last moment by David, who marries her in the final scene. Subplots relate the romances and eventual marriages of some of the picaresque characters inhabiting the village.
Way Down East is about a young girl from the country. She lives with her ailing mother and they are very poor. The girl goes off to the city to beg for financial assistance from rich relatives that want nothing to do with her. She meets a wealthy man who pretends to fall in love with her, then he stages a fake wedding and takes advantage of her innocence. She gets pregnant and then learns that the wedding was a sham and that she is now an outcast from decent society.
She returns to her mother with the tragic news. Her mother soon dies and the poor girl is left alone in the world with a small baby to raise. Her baby isn't long for this world however. So the girl is once again alone. She meets a religious family that lives on a farm and they take her in, being unaware of her scandalous past of course. The grown son of this family quickly begins to fall for the new girl who seems incredibly sweet and such a hard worker. Of course her secret comes out eventually and the girl, in the midst of despair and shame, is told to leave by the patriarch. She gets lost in a blizzard and winds up on an ice floe in a river heading for a waterfall. The boy comes to the rescue and his family, overcome with guilt at the way they have behaved, welcomes the girl back into their home with open arms. The movie ends with her wedding to the boy.
Lillian Gish was probably the greatest dramatic actress of the silent era. The scene where her baby dies in her arms is brilliant. The way she realizes that his tiny hands have grown cold, then begins blowing on them and rubbing them. Finally she cannot deny the truth any longer and she collapses in hysterics. Too bad the Oscars weren't around yet because she deserved to win for this one. She even suffered permanent damage to her right hand from trailing it in the icy water for so many hours during the shooting of the climax. Talk about suffering for your art. As emotionally powerful as this movie is it is not without its flaws. It is a bit longer than it needs to be and there are a few inappropriate attempts at slapstick that seem forced and out of place. Richard Barthelmess is good as the hero. He had such matinee idol looks. But this movie is really a one woman show for Gish.
Way Down East is a typically melodramatic D W Griffith film, with its overbearing morality firmly entrenched in Victorian values that were already starting to look a little outdated at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. The film is littered with inter-titles written in a horribly florid style, and makes a bad mistake in trying to combine its heavy strand of melodrama with a humorous vein that simply doesn’t work. The humour is broad and unfunny, and pads out the running time to a mind-numbing two hours and twenty-five minutes. I mean, does it really have to take that long to tell such a simple tale? Would any other director have gotten away with it? Of course they wouldn’t. But this was Griffith, the visionary and artist, who obviously still had enough of a reputation in Hollywood to get away with such excess.
The film’s climax is justly famous, and shows how skilled Griffith was at creating scenes of incredible excitement and tension. He was aided immeasurably by the commitment of his cast. Both Gish and her leading man, the handsome, chisel-jawed Richard Barthelmess, ventured out into a real snow storm to film the climactic scenes. It was Gish, and not a double, who lay on the ice floes with her hair and one hand in the icy waters. She later revealed that she never fully recovered the feeling in her hand after filming that sequence. That sequence alone justified her sacrifice — the rest of the movie is a bloated, indulgent chore to sit through.
What's astounding about the film is not that the rickety conventions of 1890s stage melodrama dog its every frame. (Even the film's seeming pioneering of feminism is hoary: the Leviticus-style titles would have us believe that Lillian Gish's tremulous ingenue fallen prey to a heavily mascaraed roue is "the story of Woman.") What's amazing is that so much of Gish's tough, funny, intuitive performance, particularly in the film's middle section as she bears her illegitimate child, transcends time, place and technology. Equally amazing is Griffith's mighty striving, with his arty location shots, quirky close-ups and riskily staged set pieces, to forge a new and expressly cinematic style.
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