Way Down East – Iris Barry (1965)

  • D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry
  • With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York

WAY DOWN EAST proved to be one of the most profitable pictures ever made. The master had once more turned the trick. The public was drawn to see an old favorite in a new guise and found its familiar melodramatic qualities heightened beyond expectation. While sticking faithfully to the bones of the play, Griffith had very rightly adapted it to suit the newer medium—notably at the beginning, by adding material to establish the background of the characters, and at the end to give full rein to the last-minute rescue, developed in purely visual terms and heightened through artful photography and cutting. It was a device which had seldom failed Griffith in the past and stood him in good stead now.

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

The lapse of time has made it difficult to estimate the qualities of Way Down East accurately. Much in it that was fresh and inventive at the time the film was made has since been absorbed into the general repertory of film technique and therefore seems banal. Other devices now outmoded or disused are obtrusive and irritating—the time-lapse fades within single scenes, the low comedy relief, the shots of blossoms and domestic animals interjected for sentiment’s sake. The extremely improbable plot creaks loudly, and the musical score, added when the film was re-released in the early days of sound synchronization, seems almost as dated as the Victorian morality. Yet if most of the characterizations are two-dimensional, they are handled with vigor and skill and the study of Anna is entire and convincing. Miss Gish conveys the moods and feelings of the sorely tried heroine more skillfully and with more restraint than she had done in BROKEN BLOSSOMS. Her performance is remarkable for its range, apparent spontaneity and sincerity; it could be contrasted with many contemporary performances to her advantage. Scenes such as the baptism of the dying baby and those in which Anna hears Sanderson confess the mock marriage and David Bartlett declares his love are almost as effective today as they were twenty years ago. The flight through the storm, the ice scenes, and the split-second rescue remain triumphs of direction, camera placement and editing, in which Griffith again attains though hardly surpasses the vitality of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

The period between intolerance and way down east marks the apex of Griffith’s success. A figure of international importance, he had played a signal part in founding a huge industry—he had already created a new art form—in which the United States became and remained supreme. Except for Frank Lloyd Wright, no such eminent American as he had arisen in the arts since Whitman. He was to continue active for another decade, though the most fruitful years were past. Already men trained under him were stepping into the limelight, at the same time that newcomers drawn from many walks of life and from Europe as well as from this country were likewise contributing new ideas, new techniques. Erich von Stroheim, who had been one of Griffith’s assistants as well as one of his leading actors, made two films, blind HUSBANDS (1919) and foolish wives (1921), which attracted wide attention and set a new style. His directorial career—culminating in the superb and somber greed (1924) —afterwards suffered a great eclipse rendered only the more startling by his re-emergence as an actor in the French film LA GRANDE ILLUSION in 1937. Frank Powell has already been referred to. Mack Sennett, even earlier, had graduated from acting and providing plots for Griffith to the glorious creation of Keystone comedies. Lowell Sherman, villain of WAY DOWN EAST, was to direct—among other films—Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Donald Crisp, after BROKEN BLOSSOMS, also became a director of distinction— Buster Keaton’s the navigator (1924) and Douglas Fairbanks’ DON Q (1925) are perhaps his best-remembered pictures—and today he is again a leading character-actor. It would fill many pages to enumerate the notable actors and actresses who gained their first experience under Griffith and first faced the camera with Bitzer turning. All these fed the industry with new talent. But times and taste alike were changing. From now on Griffith’s films were often criticized even by the trade press as “melodramatic.” In 1924 James Quirk *** boldly admonished Griffith in an editorial in Photoplay: “You have made yourself an anchorite at Mamaroneck . . . your pictures shape themselves towards a certain brutality because of this austerity . . . your refusal to face the world is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal . . . your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you—and to pictures.”

*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)

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