D.W Griffith's outstanding 'Way Down East' is one of the best films produced by America in the silent era. It is a monument to epic film-making, and the talents of it's director, Griffith, and it's star, the great Lillian Gish.
In a plot very similar to that of Thomas Hardy's famous novel 'Tess Of The D'Urbervilles', Gish portrays Anna Moore, a poor farm girl who must leave her relatives in search of assistance from her rich city cousins. Upon arrival it is obvious that she is in an unfamiliar, dangerous world with these wealthy, pleasure-seeking people- just look at the juxtaposition of Anna's costume at the party, and the over-sized door that both greets and dwarfs her. Anna meets the cad Lennox Sanderson at said party given by her relatives, and the villain seduces the innocent girl. Lennox tricks her into a fake wedding in order to bed her. Anna is shocked to find out later the wickedness of his deeds. She returns home to her family a disgraced, pregnant single woman. She is cast aside by her relatives and her weakling baby dies. Finally, she must take to the road in search of help. On the Bartlett family farm she finds salvation, and a man that could be true to her, the idealistic dreamer son David (Richard Barthelmess). But escaping the past will prove difficult for if she is to achieve happiness in the end.
Gish is absolutely brilliant in the role of the poor, simple farm girl. She was the first truly 'modern' actress of the cinema, and she shows her talent here, running through the gamut of emotions and looking achingly torn in every beautiful close-up. No posturing like we saw from silent exotics Pola Negri or Theda Bara, Gish is truly natural. Their was no one better than her at the playing the suffering, betrayed girl in the D.W Griffith Victorian melodramas. Perhaps her position as a symbolic of Victorian purity and virtue is the reason her film career in the talkies was largely reduced. Gish still had a successful film and television career in character parts for many, many years after the induction of sound, but her silent work will always be her lasting contribution.
Richard Barthelmess, who Gish regarded as the best-looking man ever to grace the screen, gives an equally fine performance as David. He is the sweet lover we all would like to have, honest and true. The love scenes between David and Anna are tender and believable, Lillian and Richard certainly shared remarkable chemistry.
I love how D.W made this film; the filmic devices he employed. Wonderful symbolism with David stroking a white dove, another image of purity. The pastoral images bathed in natural light contrasted with the darkness of Anna's 'seduction'. The juxtaposition of the rich and poor. The light comic relief in the midst of drama. Oh, and that 'iceflow' scene.
That scene is one of the most remarkable you will find in the cinema, and it was shot entirely on location. Yes, that IS Miss Gish's freezing hand dragging in the ice, and Barthelmess WAS the one who rescued Gish from certain peril. Remember, these were the days where actors did their own stunts, so kudos all round.
This film is a true example of Victorianism. I actually studied it in-depth in school last year as a Victorian-influenced film, and it's not hard to see it's place as one. The treatment of women (unmarried mothers) is revelatory, the image of the 'seducer' figure is prominent, and the divide between the rich and poor is clearly evident. Yes, it's almost like picking up one of those hefty Victorian novels, a viewing of WDE.
It is not without it's faults, however. It's gloriously over-long and melodramatic, such was Griffith's style. Also, the moralizing can get really tedious at times. You have to appreciate the context Griffith made in this in, and Griffith's unique reputation as a film-maker to properly enjoy WDE.
It is a marvelous experience.
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