This week should have been 1919. But alas the highest-grossing film of 1919 The Miracle Man has been lost to us and only 2 minutes of footage remains. It is a bit difficult to review that. So we have had to move on to 1920 and we are now officially only 100 years away! Hoorah! This time out we return to the great Lillian Gish for Way Down East.
Not only are we returning to Lillian Gish, but we are returning to D.W. Griffith who last time out had made a horrible immoral film. Since 1916 he had been on a bit of an apology tour and had wisely chosen Gish to be his muse for the majority of these pictures. As in 1919 he began a resurgence after the disdain shown to him for The Birth of a Nation and the commercial failure of Intolerance of which he would never financially recover from.
An innocent country girl (Gish) is sent to her rich aunt where she is promptly tricked into a fake marriage by the devious (Lennox Sanderson) solely so he can have his way with her. He leaves her broken and pregnant where she must begin to learn to rebuild her life despite the knowledge of having a child out of wedlock.
After a fairly slow and entirely silent era melodramatic start we are learning about Anna’s situation and her new life in New England for far too long, especially given the case that we do not see much of her family after those scenes. But as the film was meant to be almost 3 hours long (we have lost around 30 minutes) it is possible they were in there. This is a simple editing issue, however. The only other place to find a negative in the film is the two other subplots involving characters falling in love. It merely gets in the way of the film and most importantly the emotion the film has with the audience. There is no need for these subplots and accompanying comedy bits in the film.
Way Down East is at its true best from 40 minutes onwards where the film gets to spread its legs and become what it really should be. After Anna discovers that her marriage is fake after revealing that she is pregnant, we see some truly heart-breaking acting from Gish as with each cut to her we see all of her emotions pour out onto the screen. Way Down East then proceeds to twist the knife on poor Anna at every opportunity and due to knowing how unwed mothers were treated during that time (effectively banishing them).
The final scenes are astounding, simply astounding for the era. The fact that Gish decided to keep her hand in the ice-cold river to make her character’s plight look so foregone is astounding. Especially in an age where stunt doubles were very much not the norm.
Also when Gish’s Anna has to flee out of the house and into the storm, all of that is real. The crew had to wait until a storm came in so they could get the shot. With 10 feet visibility and snow and ice-covered hair and eyelashes of Gish are all real and no makeup was needed. They were really ready to do everything they could for the film and it is a testament to their durability (Gish had frostbite and never fully regained feeling in her hand after the river scene) to make Way Down East. Which now has to be considered a masterpiece.
Griffith is often accused of going to the melodrama well a tad too often with his films and although he does so again here he and cinematographer Billy Bitzer are able to frame the picture beautifully. As mentioned that the last couple of scenes are truly inspirational work with some great shots. Griffith, of course, gets his trademark closeups of Gish, however, Bitzer’s influence is all over the film.
As mentioned I did not know too much other than the basics about silent cinema when I was younger. Having the chance to watch more of the era has really opened up my appreciation of it. Without a doubt, Lillian Gish had to be considered one of if not the best actress of her generation. While I think Mary Pickford is great in films I have seen of her. Her decision to play characters so young will always diminish my thoughts on her. Whereas while Gish would always play the innocent character, she would be of adult age and like in Way Down East. Show an abundance of strength and fire to make the character her own.
If you know D.W. Griffith then you will know how utterly melodramatic his films are and at first glance. This one seemed almost a little beyond the time of 1920. The play version of this story was a bit hit 20 years prior and goodness knows how many similar plotlines (well from the opening act) had been made. The point is, this was a slow mover and Griffith really had to rely on Gish to make the most out of the role in the first half. A very heavy-handed morality tale, yet one that still packs a serious punch.