Picture Play Magazine – Volume XIII December 1920 No.4
The Screen in Review
By Peter Milne
DEEP-ROOTED in the traditions of the American stage is the “b’gosh” drama. This type of rural play, headed by such classics as “Way Down East,” and “The Old Homestead.” and runningdown the line to cruder copies of these, was prominently in vogue a decade or two ago. The term “b’gosh” was fastened on these plays rather condescendingly. It implied more than the mere expression of the amazed squire who exploded “b’gosh” at various moments throughout the play; it implied the squire’s false whiskers, the villain in riding boots, the simpleton hero, the barnyard scene with its painted backdrop, and the becurled ingenue whose manicured finger nails reflected the footlights. It never was great art, but it had a deep and abiding appeal. It has remained for the motion picture to eliminate some of the “b’gosh” element from the rural drama. Under the magic of the camera the squire’s whiskers have long since taken on an aspect of reality. The riding boots of the villain are not quite so obvious. Charles Ray and some few others have endowed the country heroes with a very sincere human note. The ingenue milks the cow in a real rural setting. The barnyard scene with its painted backdrop gives way to beautiful pastoral photographs. The camera reflects true rural life.
“Way Down East” is a production in which D. W. Griffith has taken advantage of this refining influence of the camera on the rural melodrama. He has taken this old classic and turned out an astounding production, one which is already placed beside “The Birth of a Nation” in the elements of human interest, thrill, and spectacular effect. It is Griffith’s first “big” picture since “Hearts of the World.” By it he demonstrates his right to be placed above all others of his craft as the wizard who knows the hearts of the majority of picturegoers, a right which during the past two years might justly have been questioned. But though Griffith nods at times and perhaps dozes a bit his reawakenings are marked by such epics as “Way Down East.” So we can easily forgive him his little lapses.
The first part of “Way Down East” concerns itself with the tragedy of the betrayal of Anna Moore by Lennox Sanderson, the city villain. It is melodramatic only in its fundamental situation. For the rest it is a brilliant characterization by Lillian Gish, who portrays the role of the girl. The persecuted heroine of the present production is by far the greatest role created by this actress. The heights to which she builds through her nervous, intensifying emotional ability are superb. Her romantic scenes, when she hears Sanderson’s false avowal of love, and believes the mock marriage ceremonial true, are touched with a beautiful appeal. Her sudden awakening, the realization that the man she held most dear has betrayed her, are terrific. The depths of despair to which she sinks after the death of her baby—pitifully baptized by its frenzied mother — sound a note of tragedy that is tremendously potent.
The second part of the story concerns itself with the development of Anna’s real romance with David, the squire’s son—a role played by Richard Barthelmess who is shown with Miss Gish’ in a scene from the play in the picture above. Here Griffith has trotted out many of the “b’gosh” incidents of the original play, and even exaggerated them. The comedy is rough and jars in its tremendous contrast with the beautifully done major action. There are plenty of genuine light scenes, pretty and amusing, but the horse play of Martha Perkins, Sterling, and Whipple strike discordant notes. But it is in this part of the picture also that the power of the camera over the theater stage asserts itself. The photography of the rural landscapes is wondrously beautiful.
Then comes the long sequence of climactic action—the greatest thrill ever shown. Anna’s past is revealed, and the wrath of the squire descends upon her. A brief moment of triumph is hers when she denounces Sanderson before the farmer folk who have held him a gentleman. This moment, incidentally, is Miss Gish’s triumph as well as the character’s. It is the rarest piece of acting that the screen has offered in all its years.
Anna, having denounced Sanderson, goes out into the driving snowstorm, toward the river and oblivion. At length she falls exhausted on the river ice. In the meantime David is wildly searching for her and finally comes to the river just as the great ice break begins! The ice cracks and swirls in the waters and starts its way down the current to the falls. Anna lies unconscious on a jagged piece which is soon caught in the current and hurled recklessly on.
Horrified, David begins his pursuit, leaping from one ice cake to another, nearing his goal, only to have the gap widened again the next moment by some eccentricity of the ice break, or the river current. But he keeps on, making dangerous leaps, sometimes slipping —once, indeed, he immersed himself in the water only to scramble on again in a mad frenzy to save the girl of his heart from destruction.
And just as the ice bearing Anna touches the very brink of the falls, David, by one final, superhuman effort, reaches her side, snatches her from certain death, and then beats back against the ice floe to the shores of safety. Griffith is a wizard when it comes to the building of such a climax and in holding the suspense. The quick flashes from Anna to David, the numerous shots of the falls, the terrific struggle waged by David, despite his seemingly hopeless task, all bespeak the hand of a master craftsman. It is a thrill that equals anything else that even Griffith has done, not excepting the ride of the clansmen in “The Birth of a Nation” or the finale of “Hearts of the World,” in which the hero dashes to the rescue of the heroine. The ice floe is more relentless than the Hun.
I think Griffith has gone too far in his realism on various occasions throughout “Way Down East.” The flash of Anna that suggests the tortures of childbirth might better be omitted. And it is hard to understand why an artist such as Griffith must needs introduce such minor vulgarities as the Sanderson orgy and the scene in the bedroom, in which the bed is the center of attention, just after the mock marriage of Anna and Sanderson. Realism with a capital “r” is unnecessary. But no minor exceptions can dim the praise that is Griffith’s for “Way Down East” as a whole. In his fine work he has been aided by Miss Gish’s wonderful performance, by the upright work of Richard Barthelmess as David, by the polished performance of Lowell Sherman as Sanderson, and by Burr Mcintosh’s characterization of Squire Bartlett.