Way Down East:
A Retrospective Review

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Way Down East Kino Masterworks EditionD.W. Griffith�s Way Down East is best remembered for the climactic ice floe scene featuring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess.  Having never watched the entire film before, I sat down knowing only of those few minutes, a very small portion in what is a 149 minute film (Kino Masterworks edition on VHS, box pictured at right).  What I knew was that besides being the most famed moment of the film it was one of the most famed moments in movie history.  I sat down interested in seeing how Griffith got to that moment.

          First a word about this Kino edition.  It comes as advertised, �Color Tinted, Original Orchestral Score.�  I found the music fitting throughout, though a bit hokey to my tastes in some spots, especially in part one of the film.  I�ve watched enough silent films to expect to hear the knocking when someone pounds at a door, and this was no exception, but what came as a nice surprise was the audio accompanying the climax, where you can hear the rushing of the river and collisions of the ice, and hear it especially as it all tumbles violently over the waterfall.  That was a very nice touch for the exciting ending to this film.  The scenes were color-tinted in the traditional manner, plus several scenes seemed to be entirely in color, albeit a faded color, but I found these scenes to be especially eye-pleasing.  There were a few grainy spots where the film looked as though it had been rescued from the trash bin, but honestly not enough to distract you for more than a brief moment.  Since this picture was originally released in 1920, I was quite pleased with what the Kino restoration team had placed in my hands.

          What I found out in the end was that this piece, which I had always assumed to be an all-out action movie based upon the one scene, was more of a melodrama, and even more so a morality tale, which grants us a very telling peek into the lives and minds of some regular folk in the early Twentieth Century.

          This movie begins with Anna Moore (Gish) being sent off by her poor mother to see if she can secure money from their richer relations.  This is where Anna meets up with the well-moneyed Lennox Sanderson, played by Lowell Sherman.  The titles tell us right up front that Sanderson is a real lady�s man, and you can sense right away a bit of a heel by virtue of his exploits.  He proposes to Anna and they are married, however he is very emphatic that she not tell anyone of their marriage.  It is only after Anna reveals to Sanderson that she is pregnant that she insists they publicly announce their marriage, and Sanderson disgusts the audience by informing her that the marriage was a sham, staged basically so that he could have his way with her.  Anna is cast out to the streets and ends up renting a room under the name Mrs. Lennox. 

          It is on these premises that Anna delivers her baby.  Almost immediately after the birth the doctor informs Anna that the baby is very ill.  This is the first scene where the acting truly began to stand out.  What this movie proved more than any of the others I have seen featuring her was that Lillian Gish truly was every bit the incredible silent actress that her reputation proclaims.  Her expressions and emotions throughout the film always seem perfect.  She is so good in fact that her performance actually showed up most of the other actors.   By comparison, Lowell Sherman as Sanderson, especially early in the film, goes way overboard trying to act the carefree playboy.  Gish, who up to this moment we have just seen as a poor nice girl who became mixed-up with the wrong sort of man, is now seated with her sick baby in her arms.  Her grandest moment in the entire movie comes here, as she rubs the baby�s hands and then blows her hot breath onto the child�s cold hands and head.   She is becoming more and more panicked as the doctor arrives.  The doctor tells her that her baby has died and she throws her head back in complete horror and wails as the scene ends.  I could swear that I heard her!

          Somewhat abruptly we are brought to a farm scene and introduced to Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) and his wife (Kate Bruce).  The titles tell us that these are Church-going folk who know and quote Scripture.  It�s also around this point that we meet the main comic characters in the movie, two of whom made me smile and the other who just annoyed me.  Hi Holler, played by Edgar Nelson, was just too over the top for my personal tastes.  After one scene I decided to treat his character as though he were mentally unstable and playing this straight rather than actually going for laughs, which is what I�m sure was really going on.  Unlike the other comic characters in this film, Hi Holler had absolutely no reason to be in the movie except for comic relief.  I�m sure many movie going folk found him funny in 1920, but I cannot really see anyone enjoying his hi-jinks anytime recently.  On the other side of the spectrum we have the Constable (George Neville), who managed to make me laugh out loud by virtue of his facial expressions alone.  He struck me as the type of character who would show up inLillian Gish 1923 Trading Card the early talkies of the thirties and just be gruff for lack of a better word.  I felt as though he was a familiar voice, one that I could hear 1917 White Rounded Borders Lillian Gish US Trading Cardfrom those great character actors of those later movies.  We also meet the Professor (Creighton Hale), who I have to admit got on my nerves a little at first, but grew on me as the picture progressed.  The Professor is the meek caricature of the book-smart, street-shy educated type that is still belittled in the comedies of today but usually have big bank accounts in real life.  In sum, while I can place the Constable�s brand of humor as ten to fifteen years ahead of his time, and the Professor�s as timeless, Hi Holler might have been funny in 1920 but not for too long after that.  Other minor characters in this setting, worth mentioning only for the roles they play later are Seth (Portor Strong), who is more or less just a warm body, and the Gossip, Martha (Vivia Ogden), who does play a part in moving the plot along later.  Before part one of the film closes out we also meet the Squire�s charming niece, Kate (Mary Hay).  Hi Holler has a few scenes where he bumbles around Kate, otherwise the Professor clumsily courts her throughout the movie. 

          And of course we also now meet the Squire�s son, David Bartlett, played by Richard Barthelmess.  The first thing that struck me about Barthelmess was how very young he was.  This was really his second big film coming right after Broken Blossoms had made him a star.  Barthelmess seemed to tend to the farm throughout the movie while Squire and Mother Bartlett sat around the yard and all of the others kind of bounded back and forth around them.  This was basically the setting when Anna shows up and asks the Squire for work.  The Squire is hesitant, he doesn�t really trust outsiders, and as harmless as Anna looks she is no exception.  Mother convinces the Squire that the Bible would want him to give Anna a chance, and the Squire relents even though as he points out they have no idea what type of woman Anna could be.

          We�re not really too sure how much time has passed at the beginning of part two, but Anna seems pretty settled in at the Bartlett�s. 1920's Richard Barthelmess 5x7 Fan Photo David catches her in a moment alone down by the river and confesses his feelings for her.  Anna seems caught up in the moment for a second, we can tell that she really likes David a lot, but then remembers her past and in order to protect him tells him not to bring up such things again.  At dinnertime, Sanderson arrives for a visit and we find out that he is a neighbor of the Bartlett�s.  Anna and Sanderson meet up alone outside by the well in a scene which you anticipate and Gish consequently plays with perfect emotion while Sherman takes it too far.  Sanderson tells Anna that since he lives nearby she�ll have no choice but to leave the Bartletts.  He goes inside to dinner and leaves Anna outside alone and depressed, but David comes along to cheer her up and convince her to stay.  Inside, Sanderson begins courting the niece, Kate, which leads to some amusing scenes with the Professor as well.  It seems as though Kate is just playing with the Professor throughout the movie and has her real intentions set on Sanderson, but that turns out not to be so in a little while.

          The major developments in part two that lead up to the climax are Sanderson�s interactions with Anna, and the Gossip finding out about Anna�s past from her old landlady (Emily Fitzroy).  Sanderson again insists that Anna depart, and tells her that it would be better for her to go on her own accord rather than allowing the Bartletts to find out about her past.  Anna finally expresses her anger to some degree when she counters by asking how the Bartletts might feel about Sanderson�s own past.  Sherman actually begins to turn his performance around here, as he looks a little worried at first before breaking out into laughter�a man is expected to sow his wild oats, he tells her.  It doesn�t look too good for Anna.  She tries feeling out the Squire and doesn�t like what she hears from him either.  Griffith brings the two big points to a head simultaneously as he has David confront Anna with his feelings and actually proposes to her, while at the same time the Gossip is squealing to the Squire about Anna�s past.  The Squire is outraged.  After confirming this story with the landlady the next morning we are led to the biggest dramatic scene of the movie over a dinner table with all of the main characters eventually present.

          The Squire is cutting into Anna pretty good, all the while Sanderson isThe big dinner table scene from Way Down East seated at the table in the background and once again doing a very good job again of capturing the proper emotion�he�s worried she�s going to rat him out.  This is just perfect because of what he�s said earlier about sowing oats and it makes watching him squirm quite a bit of fun.  David arrives and demands that Anna refute these scandalous claims against her, but Anna says that she could not honestly do so.  Just when it looks like Anna is going to meekly depart, she stops by the door and begins to rage against Sanderson.  Gish again shines, displaying out and out anger for the first time in the movie.  She makes her case to the Squire, explaining that everybody is so quick to condemn her, but what about the man who did this to her?  She tells them it was a false marriage, and then, horror in Sanderson�s eyes she points to him and exposes him as the man who has wronged her.  David flies into a rage and attacks Sanderson as Anna runs out of the house into what looks like must have been the worst blizzard of the twentieth century!

          From here we lead into the famed ice floe scene.  In case you�re not familiar with it, Anna is passed out on a piece of ice which has broken from the shore and is racing down the river towards a waterfall.  David, decked out in a heavy dark fur, trails behind and jumps onto another ice shelf himself trying to catch up to his beloved.  We then cut back and forth from Lillian Gish looking absolutely miserable and helpless sprawled across the ice, to Richard Barthelmess hopping from ice floe to ice floe in a mad dash to catch up to her before she topples over the fall.  He catches her right where the fall breaks, the piece of ice on which she is stranded crumbling bit by bit over the fall as David takes Anna in his arms and quickly springs across the ice in reverse and against the current. 

           By the next morning everyone is in the Constable�s office surrounding Anna.  Sanderson even comes over to her and apologizes.  He tells her that he knows now that he did the wrong thing and would offer her an honest marriage to make things good.  This may have been taking it a little too far to try and square everybody away as a nice guy at film�s end, but when Anna shakes her head no the relief that breaks out across Sanderson�s face makes it all worthwhile�he�s still slime, good going Lowell Sherman!  The film comes to a close with a triple-wedding: the Professor is wed to Kate, the niece, while the Gossip takes the vows with Seth, and of course, Anna and David are married as well.

          The key point to this entire film came in the scene between Anna and Sanderson where Sanderson tells her that men are expected to do what he did, while Anna, as a woman was ruined.  It summed up the way people thought during that period, and fits with the opening titles that Griffith used: ��Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached this high standard�except perhaps in theory.  If there is DW Griffith on cover of National Film Theatre retrospective programanything in this story that brings home to men the suffering caused by out selfishness, perhaps it will not be in vain��  Griffith was progressive enough to reform this view through the character of the Squire, who believes  good is good and bad is bad and if someone good does something bad they�re now bad too.  In the end, the Squire accepts Anna.  Meanwhile the character of David is not bothered by Anna�s past when it�s laid out truthfully before him.  Of course he has to go chase her down almost immediately after that past is revealed, but that the fact that he had no time to dwell over this decision was kind of the point in the first place.  He loves her and nothing else matters.  This was a  fitting way to open the Roaring 20�s when flappers would emerge and women made great gains in power and individuality.

          Overall, I�m sure Griffith could have cut this down quite a bit and made at least a two hour movie out of what comes to us at two and a half hours.  By this time he must have been so accustomed to the details involved in the epic story that I would think he would have been hesitant to cut any detail.  The two things which make this picture stand out as special have been mentioned already.  They are, the ice floe action sequence representing Griffith�s ultimate directorial feat of the film, and Lillian Gish�s superb performance as Anna.  If another actress had this role the quality of this film would drop quite a bit.  I�d say what Griffith gave us here could have easily been a very average movie, rating oh, a 5/10, but I�m going to add a point each for both the ice-floe scene and Gish�s performance and call this a 7/10.  Well worth the two and a half hours I spent watching and the extra time spent writing about it. 

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Written by Cliff Aliperti, owner things-and-other-stuff.com, and editor of the Movie Profiles & Premiums newsletter.
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