Way Down East (1920)

“Don’t worry; everything’s all right. Don’t you trust me?”

Synopsis:
A naive country girl (Lillian Gish) is deceived by a womanizing player (Lowell Sherman) into believing she’s married him, and bears a child out of wedlock. After the baby dies and Sherman abandons her, she starts her life over by working as a maid for a squire (Burr McIntosh), whose son (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with her. But can she escape her “shameful” past?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that D.W. Griffith’s adaptation of Lottie Blair Parker’s popular 19th century melodrama remains “the best of [his] pastoral films”, noting that rather than relishing “the chance to make a woman suffer, [he] doesn’t try to milk the audience’s tears”, and makes Gish’s Anna “resilient in her many hardships” so that we “want to admire Anna, not pity her”. Despite Gish’s fine central performance, however — and the justifiably famous finale in which “the freezing Gish walks perilously across ice floes during a blizzard” (using no stunt doubles) — Way Down East remains more of a curiosity than a true classic. There’s nothing particularly new about the heartbreaking storyline (one contributor on IMDb points out the uncanny narrative similarities with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles), and Griffith’s portrayal of country yokels as foolish rubes quickly moves beyond “humor” into tiresome and offensive caricature. With that said, film fanatics will probably be curious to check this one out simply given its historical relevance; it was Griffith’s second most popular film after The Birth of the Nation.

Note: Another contributor on IMDb notes that she’s shown this film to her high school students for years as an archetypical example of Victorian melodrama — which makes complete sense.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lillian Gish as Anna
  • An occasionally heart-breakingly melodramatic script
  • G.W. Bitzer’s cinematography
  • The exciting icy climax

Must See?
Yes, but only for its historical relevance.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Way Down East (1920)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history.

    My first revisit in years. (It’s probably clear that I don’t tend to commonly revisit silents – with the exception of Keaton or certain titles.) ‘WDE’ is a good example of a solid melodrama of the period (complete with a holiday barn dance to give viewers a reprieve). It’s noteworthy also for the performances by Gish and Barthelmess – who actually make a wonderful on-screen couple; their natural (non-movie-style) sincerity toward each other is palpable.

    It is rather startling to notice how similar the plot is to Hardy’s ‘Tess…’ – it’s almost the same story, with strategic alterations. (There’s also a bit of ‘Les Miserables’ in the Javert-like, letter-of-the-law character of the Squire.) But, as much as she does suffer, Gish’s Anna doesn’t quite meet the same fate as Tess. And Gish is given a tour-de-force bit just before the film goes full-throttle in the last, thrilling 15 minutes – a conclusion as effective as it is far-fetched.

    I first saw this film in a theater and the ending on a large screen was, indeed, captivating. (That first viewing was in Tokyo. When I lived there, I hunted down a number of cultural groups – including one at Waseda University – which regularly screened classic films from around the world. It was a lovely opportunity to see quite a few films on the screen which were not yet available for home viewing in the new VHS era.)

    Note: Nice ‘gay’ touch near the end of the film…when two men accidentally kiss. 😉

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