WAY DOWN EAST (Griffith/United Artists, 1920) Selected Film Criticism

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

WAY DOWN EAST (Griffith/United Artists, 1920) 

  • Burns Mantle in Photoplay, Vol. 19, No. 1 (December 1920)
  • Exceptional Photoplays, No. 2 (December 1920), page 3 

There are two kinds of super-feature productions–the Griffith kind and the others. But before you spiral to the conclusion that all that Griffith does is superlative and all that the others do suffers something by comparison let me assure you that that is not what I mean. The things that Griffith does best he does better than any other director in pictures; the things he does badly he cheapens quite as noticeably. In Way Down East, which is certain to be the most talked of and probably the most successful picture of the year, the concluding scene of the drifting ice and the rescued Anna Moore is probably the most stirringly realistic single scene that has been screened, and on the other hand the bucolic comedy is as common place and colorless and trivial as any.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

Personally, too, I quarrel with the Griffith lack of taste in the development of such episodes as that in which Lillian Gish is forced to writhe about a bed in the pain of childbirth and in the forced dramatic emphasis of such scenes as the night-long vigil with the corpse of the dead child–scenes that require the utmost delicacy of treatment to relieve them of that stark realism which is frequently revolting. And yet it is no more than fair to admit that there is effective tragedy even in these scenes.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (Anna Moore seduced by Lennox Sanderson – Lowell Sherman)

There may be other directors who could have handled the age-old story of Anna Moore’s attainment of happiness through suffering better than Griffith has handled it, but if there are I am unfamiliar with their work. This Belasco of the screen has a definite gift for detail on which he expends an infinite amount of pains. His backgrounds are never merely plastered in, or set up hurriedly and carelessly shot. They are etched in and become not only photographically true, but atmospherically consistent and helpful to the building of the story.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

For example, the bridal “suite” in the country hotel to which the seducer took Anna Moore after the mock marriage, was rather elaborate when compared with what one might reasonably expect from the exterior of the same hotel, but it was a real room, perfect in detail and furnishings. And there was not an exterior that did not exude the very scents and smells of New England.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

Griffith, too, is particularly careful in his choice of actors. After twenty years of Phoebe Davies on the stage Lillian Gish seems a little immature and childish for the suffering Anna, but she is thoroughly competent and her director, knowing so perfectly her histrionic limitations, is careful not to press her too far. She inspires a quick sympathy and is able to carry the emotional scenes tellingly. Richard Barthelmess is a good choice for the honest farmer boy and Lowell Sherman adds one more to his lengthening lists of seductions. Creighton Hale, in the one intelligently directed comedy scene of the barn dance, was excellent, and little Mary Hay added a touch here and there that seems to promise a screen future for her. Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Vivia Ogden and Edgar Nelson lent competent support. Like all super-features, Way Down East would be a stronger picture if it were not so extended–if it were eight reels in place of twelve, say. But it is the one of the few super-features that will be able to stand alone. Anthony Paul Kelly provided the scenario, which someone has spattered with a mixture of good titles and bad. 

–Burns Mantle in Photoplay, Vol. 19, No. 1 (December 1920), pages 57-58. 

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

*****

It was almost a foregone conclusion that Way Down East would make an exceptional picture. Its long life and nationwide popularity on the stage had already stamped it as an unusual play. As a rule melodramas have a short lease of life and are easily forgotten.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

When one of them succeeds in maintaining itself in the national repertory for a great number of years, it is safe to assume that the human appeal of the characters or a touch of real poetry in the story rises above the conventional effects at which melodrama usually aims. A play of this kind is sure to attract the producer of pictures because melodrama is undoubtedly the favorite art form of the screen. Mr. Griffith has a sure instinct for such things.

Way Down East set filming 2 Mamaroneck Arch

The story of Way Down East is too familiar to need complete retelling. It is, in its way, a classic of American rural life and is almost as widely known as The Old Homestead or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There is a real and unaffected poignancy about the betrayal of a young and ignorant girl by a sophisticated seducer which can easily be brought home to vast audiences. Here the moving picture has the advantage over the play. For photoplay art has resources which permit it to soften the crassness of melodrama and to disguise its shop worn qualities. The silent drama leaves our imagination more free, and the girl’s misery, which is none the less real for being one of the oldest stories in the world, can still be brought to us with artistic freshness.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and the eccentric aunt

Mr. Griffith has gone to work with his usual lavishness. He tells his story against a panorama of country life and manners full of much delightful detail, and thus adds an element of spectacle to what would otherwise have been indeed a ’’simple tale.” Anna Moore’s visit to her rich relatives is translated into a gorgeous fashion show and the simple farm of Squire Bartlett is turned into somewhat of a show place. Mr. Griffith favors large gestures to reach his screen public.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

The climax of the picture is furnished by Anna’s blind flight into the snowstorm. Here Mr. Griffith has let himself loose, and the result, to judge from the applause which greets this scene, justifies the method. But the scene becomes very long and the suspense threatens to lose itself as the spectator begins to doubt the possibility of David’s ice-jumping feats. They are certainly enough to make poor Eliza of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame turn over in her grave, and any real country folk who know something about ice jams will probably realize that they are being told a pretty tall story. But, as Mercutio said, “it will serve, ” and there is no doubt of its being a headline thriller. It is possibly the most spectacular thing, giving at moments a sense of real terror, that has ever been photographed for a dramatic picture.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set

Mr. Griffith could be depended upon for bringing out the full pathos of Anna’s tragedy. His genius for this sort of thing has always been great. And, as usual, he has had the advantage of Miss Lillian Gish’s unlimited cooperation. It is a truly astonishing thing about this young artist that one can always say that her latest work is her best. One wonders how high she can still climb on the ladder of superb screen acting. Or perhaps it is a question of how far Mr. Griffith and Miss Gish could go together, for it is often impossible to tell in their work where direction ends and interpretation begins. The rest of Mr. Griffith’s cast is, as usual, well balanced, and shows some fine individual work.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish

Here and there, however, Mr. Griffith has lowered his artistic standard. Some of his comedy scenes, the country dances and the village store episodes, are carelessly done, as if taken in haste, and are not properly joined to the rest of the story. And the scene where Anna gives birth to her child throws the emphasis on the physical side to a degree which is decidedly in questionable taste. It is a pity that in this case the acting of Miss Gish is forced beyond the line of expression into sheer distortion. Nor can anything be said for the colored tintings which Mr. Griffith has introduced here and there into his landscapes. All the delicacy and mellowness which has so distinguished his landscape work in the past is lost by this fatal pink intrusion.

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

As for the scenes during the function in the home of Anna’s city relatives, in which colored foreground portraits of Anna are introduced in contrast to the black and white backgrounds of the longer shots, one hardly knows what to think. To some the idea will appear as an artistic blunder. Others will forgive the incongruity on the theory that Mr. Griffith was endeavoring to create the color impression of a very gaudy and sumptuous social affair. At least one of these colored portraits–that which reveals Miss Gish in tones of blue and silver–is quite beautiful and satisfactory in itself. Perhaps here Mr. Griffith is on the track of an impressionism which has tremendously effective possibilities.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

There is one thing, in addition, which may be pointed out. With all the various life and movement of Way Down East, there is sometimes a carelessness in the cutting and matching of scenes which certainly interferes with the illusion. There is no reason why a character should rise from a chair in a close-up view and in the succeeding long shot, which is supposed to be part of a continuous action, should appear rising from the chair again.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Yet there cannot be any doubt of the general effectiveness of the picture. Mr. Griffith cannot touch any story without putting his stamp upon it. His version of Way Down East will travel far and long. When it has travelled long enough he may perhaps again find courage to try his hand at another Broken Blossoms. 

–Exceptional Photoplays, No. 2 (December 1920), page 3.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

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