Splendid Excess – by Daniel Mangin (Bay Area Reporter, 1992)

  • Bay Area Reporter, Volume 22, Number 38, 17 September 1992
  • Splendid Excess
  • by Daniel Mangin

We’re in for a weekend of splendid excess with two widely divergent retrospective programs centering on virtue under assault. The Pacific Film Archive presents the restored, tinted print of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East at the Castro Sept. 18. The master’s plot is as overblown as cinema gets: an upper-class lout tricks damsel in distress Lillian Gish out of her innocence by faking marriage; gets her pregnant; and then abandons her. Next, the baby dies. (And that’s just the first part of this 21/2-hour opus.) Griffith’s fame derives from his creation of a coherent language out of the cinema’s basic elements, but his sense of what the medium could accomplish went beyond aesthetics. He saw film as a vehicle to elevate the morals of the masses, which to him meant the restoration of Victorian values (even if he wasn’t always able to live by them himself). The overriding moral of Way Down East, stated in the prologue and reiterated throughout, is that men should be more respectful — and less diabolical — toward women. The tone leans toward the patronizing: although Gish is a pillar of strength, surviving poverty, shame and a blizzard, she is rescued by the “love of a good man.” Griffith’s morality play was out of date the day he acquired the rights (“We all thought privately that Mr. Griffith had lost his mind,” wrote Gish in her autobiography). Even aesthetically Way Down East represents more of a consolidation of everything the director had learned about the cinema than a breakthrough. It nevertheless remains a spellbinding work.

Scene from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.

Renowned Rescue

The film’s renowned ice floe rescue scene is a master piece of crosscutting to create tension, but the sequence preceding it deserves mention as well. For 20-plus minutes Griffith builds suspense — through shot selection, editing and varying compositions—as town gossip Martha Perkins spreads the news that Gish’s character, Anna, has had a child out of wedlock. Pure melodrama, but the visual rhythm leading up to Anna’s climactic exposure of her baby’s father and her banishment from her home is beyond compare. The original score, adapted for the Castro’s Wurlitzer, is as florid as the film’s plot. The tireless Dennis James performs it with appropriate gusto.

Way Down East Castro Theatre, Sept. 18. 8 p.m. 621-6120

Ice Floe Scene – photo gallery

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