Way Down East Reviews
The melodramatic story of the handsome rich playboy Lennox (Lowell Sherman) who is exceptionally selfish and think only of their own pleasure, and his victim Anna (Lillian Gish), 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, but the baby dies... she wanders until she gets a job with Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) and David (Richard Barthelmess), Squire Bartlett's son, falls in love with her!
Obviously, at that time the institution of marriage was considered as a suitable environment for the growth of love, not as a killer of love which usually is in reality. D.W. Griffith bought the film rights to the story that was elaborated by Joseph R. Grismer. Grismer's wife, the Welsh actress Phoebe Davies, became identified with the play beginning in 1897 and starred in over 4000 performances of it by 1909 making it one of the most popular plays in the United States. Although it was Griffith's most expensive film to date, it was also one of his most commercially successful. Way Down East is the fourth highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more than $4,500,000 at the box office in 1920.
Clarine Seymour had appeared in four previous Griffith films, and was hired to play Kate, the squire's niece. However, her role was given to Mary Hay, and Seymour's footage reshot, when Seymour died after surgery. Mary Hay was a worthy replacement! Worth watching not only as a part of the cinematic history, but as an art work of exceptional value.
Way Down East features once again a marvelous performance by Lillian Gish. You might argue that her acting limits are crying and not crying. But What's makes her so great, because she does it so passionately. There is also a great scene where Gish is floating on an ice floe heading for a big water fall. What a thrilling scene. Thumbs Up.
Politically and ideologically, I am diametrically opposed to D.W. Griffith, but when a borderline feminist message about positively treating women began Way Down East, I was briefly optimistic. Then, as I watched the plot unfold, I realized that Griffith's message was confined to not socially ruining women by rakish behavior; the social conventions that confine women remain secure and intact. Women should still be brood mares for the state and men.
Griffith's anti-intellectualism is also on display as the mawkish principal dances like an epileptic who doesn't have a roadmap and won't ask for directions.
And I don't understand why this man is revered, but his film is so diegetic. Almost incessantly we get title cards judging the characters and introducing the action we're about to see. The captions don't lead us into the scene or make up for the lack of sound; rather, they tell the story twice, once in images and once in text. This is especially true of the unnecessary horse stuck in the road scene.
Lillian Gish, Griffith's stalwart champion, does a fine job, but I couldn't help but wonder if she realized how her arch conservatism meant was so tied to a sexist agenda in this film that even if she upheld these values, they would eventually bring her down.
Overall, during Way Down East I found myself delighting in watching old silent films because I could be sure that all of the people who worked on it were dead -- even the kitty cat.
WAY DOWN EAST  when on to be one of the most profitable films for Griffith and the forth highest grossing film of the 1920's. The film had a constant road show revival until 1928 when Silent films were giving way to new "Talkie" movies like THE JAZZ SINGER . Now days this film would seem like a very dated silent melodrama to the casual film buff but to the film enthusiasts who like or love silent cinema would find this film form the one of the important pioneers of cinema, director D.W .Griffith quite brilliant.
The plotline of WAY DOWN EAST: This so called story of simple people is set back in the 1890's about one young woman's tragic life. The story involves a young, poor and naive New England woman called Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) and her mother who are living in utter poverty. The mother asks Anna to go to Boston and ask for financial help from her wealthy cousin. When Anna arrives in Boston she becomes the latest obsession for local playboy Lenox Sanderson (who as one of the title card declares has only three expertises ladies, Ladies and LADIES!), Sanderson sets out to seduce the naive country Girl by wooing her. As time goes by Lenox hatches a plan for a fake wedding to bed Anna (unknown to her) and asks her to keep the wedding a secret due to him "marring" beneath his class ( also Lenox can still live out of his father's back pocket ). But when Anna reviles that she is expecting Lenox, he tells her the truth and heartlessly abandons her with his child. Now with the shame of having conceived a child out of wedlock, her kind mother protects Anna from any vicious scorn until her Mother dies and Anna is sent out to wander.
A while later Anna gives birth to her child in a boarding house in a small town but the new born is very ill and after the doctor leaves Anna's cold land lady ask her where is her Husband. Anna lies for the time being and the landlady reminds her that if the baby is to die, God will never accepted its soul if it hasn't been baptized. So all alone in her room Anna baptizes her child and when the doctor returns, he reviles the soul crushing news to Anna that her child has died. Things go much worse later on when Anna's cold-hearted landlady throws her out on the suspicion that there is no husband and that she gave birth to a bastard child. Anna then goes off wandering in a state of grief in search of a new home, which leads her into the country side and to the farm of Squire Bartlett.
Although Squire Bartlett is a god fearing man and suspicious of Anna when she ask for a job, the Squires wife and son David convince him to take her on as a house hand. In return Anna gets some much need stability in her life and shelter. In the meantime David falls deeply in love with Anna, but Anna still to traumatize cannot bring herself to love David. Trouble brews when an unwelcome neighbour shows up from the wealthy Sanderson estate nearby turns out to be a regular visitor much to Anna's shock and horror, the man that betrayed and harmed her, Lenox Sanderson a family friend of the Bartlett's. When Lenox sees her working on the farm he threatens to get rid of her but Anna in return threatens to revile the truth if he tries to do so.
The seasons pass by, winter arrives and Anna has become close to the Bartlett's and has managed to steer clear of Lenox ,but her new found security is destroyed when one of the ones close to the Bartlett's meets Anna's old landlady and finds out half of the story which is relayed to the godly Squire Bartlett. The Squire over dinner one night in the middle of a major snow storm and demands that she is to leave his house, Anna then tells the whole truth and reviles Lenox (who is having dinner with the Bartlett's) to be the one who took advantage of her. In a heartbroken sate Anna runs out into the ragging blizzard and passes out on a frozen river. David runs after her and is there in time when the ice starts to breaks up which results in one of the most amazing sequence in silent cinema, a rescue from the ice on a real frozen and moving river.
Overall the direction is solid from D. W .Griffith (why wouldn't it be from one of cinemas key directors), the cinema -photography from G. W Blitzer is great and the acting from the cast is very good, especially from Lillian Gish who gave a very moving performance in this role. But the real show stealer in this film is the daring resuce from the breaking Ice.
Now apparently Griffith wanted to shoot the Ice sequence in a studio but for various reasons he couldn't do this so it had to be done on a real frozen river with Lillian Gish upon a huge chunk of ice. Gish apparently during the shoot had to cope with lying still on that sheet of ice with the tips of her hair in the freezing river while the river was moving rapidly. This stunt alone had so much risk, it would have been easy that Gish could of been killed doing this stunt and at one point on screen she shivers (which I'm not sure is acting or actually genuine). Even during the shoot camera man G. W Blitzer had to light a fire under his camera just to keep it working in the cold climate, it's no wonder why many cast members (including Griffith) caught Pneumonia thanks to this sequence. In fact this stunt alone is just as dangerous as some of the major stunts Buster Keaton performed in THE GENERAL  with the risk involved. Now days in an age where CGI eliminates so much risk to all the stunt personal and actors, it makes these near neck breaking stunts in most silent films more amazing to view in the second decade of the 21st century.
My Final thoughts on D.W. Griffith's WAY DOWN EAST : It's a moving silent melodrama with an amazing stunt at the end which works well thanks to Griffith's direction and Lillian Gish's performance. My rating for this simple, but slightly heat touching silent film is a rating of 80%.
I might have liked the film more if I had seen it prior to Broken Blossoms (another, better work by D.W. Griffith), but that film had more going for it. Gish is a much less sympathetic character here, as a naive country woman who foolishly elopes with a man she barely knows. The baby scenes I found very distasteful: melodrama for melodrama's sake. I understood that Griffith was trying to illustrate the pain Gish was going through in the most visceral way possible, but those scenes felt incredibly unsubtle and even corny. A dead child should not be scripted this way, although Gish does her best with the scenes. It all clicks too easily: the baby dies right before the doctor arrives again, her phony husband lives next door the Bartlett's.
The movie has a cold feeling, visualized nicely by the climatic ice-river scenes (probably the best part of the film). I simply don't understand the culture of the times: she is thrown out of home she was staying when her baby died, because they learned she had no husband. Maybe the time frame wasn't made clear, but I had the impression her baby had JUST died, so I was horrified by the callousness of these women giving her the boot. I lost my suspension of disbelief at this situation that was contrived just to get Gish wandering to where she'd find the farmhouse.
I started fast forwarding when I realized that this movie was simply "Broken Blossoms" with a change in scenery: a physical abusive father replaced by a emotionally abusive, fake husband. The Chinese lover replaced by the Country lover, both much more tender than the last man in Gish's life (not to mention played by the same man!). I think the baby was added just to make sure we were aware how bad her life really was, the physical abuse was enough in Broken Blossoms. I can't avoid the comparison, and despite the handful of well-done scenes and the great climax, I can't recommend the film as a whole.
What can I say? I'm a girl, I laughed, I cried, I cheered for the poor battered Anna. If you can sit out the tentative begining of this 2 hour+ film, stick around for the end, as it's pure movie magic.