WAY DOWN EAST, 1920
Starring: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthlemess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale, Emily Fitzroy, Porter Strong, George Neville, Edgar Nelson.
A young, beautiful and naive country girl (Gish) is tricked into a fake marriage by a wealthy cad (Sherman). After he has had his way with her, she becomes pregnant and he abandons her. Having the baby out of wedlock, it soon dies and she leaves. Finding work in the home of Squire Bartlett (McIntosh), whose son David (Barthlemess) takes a shine to her, she finds happiness. But when Sherman turns up on their doorstep, the Squire finds out about Gish’s past and casts her out into the storm. Having kept quiet for so long, Anna points the finger of blame onto Sherman and leaves again. David chases after her and has to rescue her from an ice-flow.
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High drama (and, at nearly 2 and a half hours, a lengthy one too) from Griffith, with the hoariest, mustiest of plots, even for Victorian theatre (based on a play by William Brady and Joseph Grismer that had already been filmed twice).
This was the first of two romantic epics for Griffith that were his last films to turn a decent profit before an inglorious run of flops in the 1920’s and it is justifiably one of his most fondly remembered pictures.
Pastoral dramas such as this were popular with American audiences and Griffith uses the beautiful and halcyon atmosphere of a country idyll to show how this can mask social injustice and prejudice with consummate skill. He was, however, a complete idiot for letting his penchant for tactless and inappropriate comedy spoil the fine dramatic construction at various moments.
None the less he builds his drama excellently with an impeccable grasp of editing and camerawork as he jogs rather than runs to the now unforgettable climax when Barthlemess has to jump across ice sheets on a frozen river to rescue Gish (yes, that really is her floating toward the frigid waterfall).
(Of this famous scene, Gish later claimed to have permanently damaged one of her hands after trailing it for extended periods in the icy water. Griffith, a perfectionist, demanded several takes and Gish, an actress who sought perfection in her work with equal commitment, continued without complaining).
The top form silent cast are led by the luminous Gish, who manages rather skilfully to not come across as sickeningly sweet and bears life’s vicissitudes with great dignity considering a well placed kick in a few of the male characters nuts’ would have gone down a treat. Barthlemess displays true grit, despite being a little slow to cotton on to Gish’s situation and Sherman is a delightfully slimy, but charming arsehole.
Although no cameraman is officially credited, Griffith’s regular Bitzer was on hand to turn the handle duty, with help from Hendrik Sartov and Charles Downs. The results are matchless.