Wid’s Daily – Wednesday, September 8, 1920
Astounding Climax Caps Griffith’s Latest Screen Sensation
D. W. Griffith’s “WAY DOWN EAST”
- D. W. Griffith, Inc.
- DIRECTOR D. W. Griffith
- AUTHOR Lottie Blair Parker
- ELABORATED BY Joseph R. Grismer
- SCENARIO BY Anthony Paul Kelly
- CAMERAMEN G. W. Bitzer and Hendrik Sartov
- AS A WHOLE Splendidly treated melodrama rising to greatest climax ever screened.
- STORY Rich in appeal and treatment accorded it by Griffith raises it far above old level.
- DIRECTION Wonderful in the dramatic scenes—comedy relief attempted seems to strike false note
- PHOTOGRAPHY Nothing like it has ever been seen before.
- LIGHTINGS Superb CAMERA WORK Excellent
- LEADING PLAYERS Lillian Gish gives greatest performance; Richard Barthelmess and Lowell Sherman splendid.
- SUPPORT: Unusually good in the main
- EXTERIORS Beautiful rural scenes; ice flow of climax one of biggest scenes ever filmed.
- INTERIORS Excellent
- DETAIL Splendid for the most part
- CHARACTER OF STORY Tragedy of the double standard of morals.
- LENGTH OF PRODUCTION About 12 reels
A climax in which the terrific force of the elements are masterly employed for a sustained effect caps D. W. Griffith’s “Way Down East,” a picture of many sides and of many extremes.
This climax is nothing if not tremendous. It surpasses in suspense and power the gathering of the clans in “The Birth of a Nation,” the triple parallel climax of “Intolerance” and the rescue of the imperiled heroine in “Hearts of the World.”
There, practically unconscious is Anna. And off on the river banks beating wildly in the terrific snow storm is David. As he finally approaches the ice-caked river, led there by pieces of Anna’s apparel, the ice starts to crack and to flow. Slowly the piece which holds the helpless form of Anna crumbles “away and starts plunging, hurtling down the river to the falls below. David, frantic with the realization of Anna’s peril, darts and leaps from one treacherous piece of ice to another, slips and is half-submerged, regains his footing and goes on, each frenzied bound bringing him nearer the girl dearer to him than life himself.
With this situation, the suspense of which Griffith has emphasized to its fullest extent by the use of quick flashes and taking full advantage of the terrific and relentless power of the ice flow, the spectator of “Way Down East” looks upon the thrill of a lifetime. The audience at the 44th Street Theater on the opening night was quick to catch the tremendous power of it. Hardly had the battle between David and the elements begun when a ripple of applause and hopeful cheers started. And when at last David snatched the girl from the ice just as it was about to carry her over the falls and into the jaws of death and then started his battle back against the current, the entire house was on its feet cheering madly.
The scene is realism itself, and with its tremendous power it has the added merit of unusualness. Such a background has never before been provided for a thrill. And it is all so effectively staged that the fact that Anna will eventually be saved, a knowledge that is obvious, is completely lost sight of through Griffith’s skill. Here, indeed, is the last word in theatrical effect. In the production of the whole work Griffith has, with but few and generally minor exceptions, shown himself at his best.
The first part of the picture, its first five reels, concerns itself with the tragedy of Anna’s life, the which Griffith points out, is the supreme tragedy of womankind. But even in such scenes of ordinary clay as Anna’s marriage betrayal through the mock marriage, her utter despair when Sanderson reveals to her his baseness, and then the tragic episode in which she herself baptizes her dying child, Griffith has shown himself the master.
This first half of the production is a powerful tragedy, the outstanding points of which are the acting of Lillian Gish as Anna and the effects secured by Griffith and his photographers.
Anna is without doubt Miss Gish’s greatest character. She sounds a marvelously effective note of tragedy throughout her characterization and her scenes of sustained emotion show her and her teacher at their collective best. Then, too, Griffith has emphasized the absolutely hopeless plight of the girl to a degree that is truly penetrating. In- doing this both his knowledge of dramatic values and his acquaintance with the force of atmosphere come to his aid. The desolate appearance of the country hotel which conceals Anna’s tragedy is, for instance, outstanding.
There is some magnificent color work in the early scenes of the ball at which Anna meets Sanderson. They are few and, despite their excellence, seem out of place, serving rather to jar the spectator out of the illusion rather than to foster it, with their striking contrast with the scenes of plain tints and tones. And Griffith goes too far in his scene suggesting Anna writhing in the pains of child-birth. As far as carrying out his idea goes it serves its purpose with a vengeance, but realism must stop somewhere, and it might as well stop at the bedside.
The latter half of the picture adheres closely to the original play. Here there is more variety, more straight melodrama, the effects always accentuated by Griffith’s careful handling except in the comedy relief scenes. These, while perhaps they were in spirit with the stage piece, are hardly fitting in a production of the generally artistic finish accorded the picture.
The antics of Hi Holler and Reuben Whipple are well enough, but it is the Martha Perkins, the Seth Holcomb and the Professor Sterling who stand out like sore spots. Griffith certainly should have toned their actions down and not attempted slapstick play with them. If it had taken effect it might have served its intended purpose of comedy relief, but even so the ethics would have been wrong. The real comedy relief of “Way Down East,” the picture, is in the good old barn dance scenes, the Virginia reel and the polka, and in the pretty little character of Kate Brewster so well interpreted by Mary Hay, with but some few errors on her part as regards clothes.
The romance between Anna and David, the squire’s son. Develops very prettily through this latter portion. Then in turn comes the discovery of Anna’s past and her denunciation of Sanderson. This scene is splendidly played by Miss Gish. She rises to it magnificently. And after this her flight in the storm and her glorious rescue by David.
For their work at the camera G. W. Bitzer and Hendrik Sartov deserve superlative praise. There are splendid lightings, these often concentrated on Miss Gish. But it is in the filming of the rural landscapes that they have surpassed all others in the art of photography. These are beautiful, often as breath-taking as the melodrama.
Richard Barthelmess is the David of the story and he gives a fine and skilled performance. Lowell Sherman is excellent as the villain, Sanderson. Burr Mcintosh has his original role of the squire, and Kate Bruce appears as his wife. They are both splendid. Creighton Hale might have done more had the character of Professor Sterling contained more scenes like the barn dance bit. Others are Mrs. Morgan Belmont, Mrs. David Landau, Josephine Bernard, Patricia Fruen, Florence Short, Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong. George Neville, Edgar Nelson and Emily Fitzroy.
The Biggest Box Office Attraction of the Times
Box Office Analysis for the Exhibitor
Probably motion picture exhibitors won’t have a chance to book “Way Down East” for at least a year, as it will be played as a regular road show during that time. But remember this: when you finally have the opportunity to book it—that it is one of the biggest things ever seen on the screen. It looks as if it would run “The Birth of a Nation” a close race for box office honors and when, some many years hence, all is said and done and counted, it won’t be at all surprising if it surpasses it. The biggest thing about “Way Down East” is that it is lasting. This has been proven by the famous old play, and this play never reached the public finished off as artistically and as powerfully as Griffith’s picture. It’s an entertainment that people have gone to see again and again. And they will continue to do so. Even beneath the surface of the purely melodramatic play rested elements that brought the crowds back whenever it was presented.
And these elements Griffith has brought out more forcefully and with greater respect. These combined with that thrill of thrills with which he concludes his entertainment are what will make the picture live as long or even longer than its noted predecessor. In other words, it is the entertainment that is the predominant thing about “Way Down East.” And with all this it has its years of running on the stage behind it, the name of Griffith, the names of the principal players, the artistry with which it is generally presented. Certainly it is the biggest box office attraction of the times.
Near the 200th Mark – When D. W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” reaches its 200th performance at the 44th St. Theater this week the event will be celebrated by various members of the cast appearing in person at different performances.
This evening Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess will be the guests of honor. Mr. Griffith also will be present and will speak tonight. On Tuesday evening the guests will include Vivia Ogden (“Martha Perkins”),’ Kate Bruce (“Mrs. Bartlett”) and Burr Mcintosh (” ‘Squire Bartlett”). Mr. Mcintosh will speak to the audience.
All present contracts for the occupation of the 44th St. Theater have been cancelled in order to allow the Griffith picture to remain there indefinitely.