“I can’t have you around here where I live! Suppose they find out about your past life? You’d have to get out then!” says Lennox Sanderson. Anna Moore replies, “Suppose they find out about YOUR past life!” Sanderson responds, “Oh, it’s different with a man! He’s supposed to sow his wild oats.”
D.W. Griffith is one of cinema’s first pioneers; his films helped shape the language of cinema as we know it today through his innovative use of staging, cinematography, and editing. Although best known for such epics as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he’s also done great melodrama such as Way Down East, which was based on the successful stage play from the 1890s. Despite the play’s Americana ideals being considered outdated by the time Griffith’s film went into production, Griffith still managed to craft a memorable film with standout performances. I got a chance to see Way Down East on the big screen at Film Forum in New York City this past Spring, and it was a very enjoyable experience. This review of Way Down East is my entry in the Silent Cinema Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin.
1920’s Way Down East follows a poor country girl who is tricked into a fake wedding by a wealthy womanizer and struggles to survive after she becomes pregnant and is subsequently abandoned. Griffith brought together a terrific ensemble that includes Lillian Gish (as Anna Moore), Richard Barthelmess (as David Bartlett), Lowell Sherman (as Lennox Sanderson), Burr McIntosh (as Squire Bartlett), Kate Bruce (as Mother Bartlett), Mary Hay (as Kate), Creighton Hale (as the Professor), Emily Fitzroy (as Maria Poole), Margaret Frances Andrews (as Diana Tremont), and Vivia Ogden (as Martha Perkins). Gish is phenomenal as Anna, bringing humor and great strength to a character who suffers through ordeals and must find a way to overcome them. Barthelmess shines as David, bringing tenderness and great courage to a character who may hold the key to a better life for Anna. Sherman is wonderfully despicable as the womanizing Lennox, who causes Anna so much grief over the course of the film.
Griffith’s strong direction draws impressive performances from the cast and creates some memorable set pieces (especially in the film’s last act). His unusual choice of close-ups and use of stylistic on-location shooting was relatively new to cinema and would become influential on later films for decades to come. The screenplay by Joseph R. Grismer (based on the play by Lottie Blair Parker) explores a woman’s hardship and determination as she struggles to survive and make a better life for herself. The production design by Clifford Pember and Charles O. Seessel makes great use of real locations (the river of large ice chunks is still my favorite) and the cinematography by Billy Bitzer and Hendrik Sartov helps heighten the drama. The editing by James and Rose Smith moves the film at a good pace; they never allow the long film to become boring.
D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East is a certifiable silent classic that, although it sometimes gets overlooked when Griffith’s works are being discussed, features a riveting story driven by strong performances (especially Gish) and an exciting finale filled with dangerous stuntwork in dangerous conditions. Do not miss out on this silent gem that can still enthrall an audience almost a century later!
(Unfortunately, there is no trailer currently available.)