Way Down East
US (1920) Dir. D.W Griffith
“Oh, it’s different with a man. He’s supposed to sow his wild oats!”
So speaks the villain of this silent classic based on the 19th century play by Lottie Blair Parker that takes the bold stance of challenging a societal taboo that still resonates in many cultures to this day. But by 1920, attitudes were already changing – remember this was just a few years before the Jazz Age and the rise of the Flapper!
Young naïve Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is sent by her mother (Mrs. David Landau) to ask their rich cousins for a loan. When Anna arrives, her cousins are holding a lush party where playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) takes a shine to Anna, and proposes marriage, which Anna accepts. Sanderson organises a fake wedding then enjoys the honeymoon before taking a “business” trip, telling Anna to keep quiet about their marriage.
But when Anna discovers she is pregnant Sanderson reveals his deceit and walks out on her. Following the death of her mother, Anna is forced to have the baby in a hostel, but the baby dies and Anna is kicked out for being an unwed mother. Anna moves to the country and finds work with the pious Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), catching the eye of his son David (Richard Barthelmess). Things are going well until Anna’s past catches up with her.
To modern sensibilities, much of this story would be deemed too absurd to have any credibility, specifically the naivety of Anna to fall headlong into marriage in the blink of an eye, let alone the social condemnation of being a single mother. But this is a drama, and such expedience is necessary to tell the story at hand, despite clocking in at almost 2 ½ hours. *
For the first hour, Anna suffers such a ridiculous catalogue of vicissitudes and tragedy that it is a wonder she doesn’t top herself but that wouldn’t wash in 1920 so she has to keep going. Of course, she has done nothing wrong but society likes to judge people by its ever-changing rules and people like Anna are chewed up and spat out on a daily basis.
It is a testament to her character that Anna picks herself up and seeks a solution to her problems, from finding somewhere to have her child and performing his baptism when he gets ill, to seeking work and starting life afresh. Therefore, there is something ironic about this proto-feminist character capable of looking out for herself being judged because of her suffering according to Good Wife’s Handbook.
Unusually for Griffith, he isn’t his sententious self on this issue, instead choosing to pad out the second half of the film with slapstick frippery involving the hick supporting cast, a collection of toothless, inbred stereotypes and caricatures, presumably to highlight the vast contrast between them and the social elite in the city, illustrated by Anna’s snobbish, superficial cousins at the start of the film.
A distracting subplot involves Squire Bartlett’s niece Kate (Mary Hay), betrothed since birth to David, who isn’t interested. However all the other men in town are, meaning many unfulfilling scenes of ersatz comedy to lighten the mood. Interestingly, Kate is a vivacious girl with a devious streak, making the men tie themselves in knots in vying for her attention, yet this is without malice.
Following this particular route is a surprised missed opportunity for Griffith, as the mileage to be squeezed from Anna facing the demons from her past whilst trying to keep them from her current employers, who have made it clear would excommunicate her in a heartbeat if they suspected her of any wrongdoing, is substantial for such a heavy drama.
Or perhaps it is because Griffith knew what the audience didn’t and that was the fate that awaits Anna in the final act. I refer of course to the classic rescue scene in which Anna, cast out into a snowstorm, collapses by a frozen river which breaks up, washing an unconscious Anna downstream on an ice flow towards a waterfall. It’s an enduring moment of silent cinema, made all the more spectacular by the genuine practical efforts involved.
A superbly timed, filmed and edited sequence of great suspense, drama and nail-biting tension, the temperatures were actually freezing during the shoot and no stunt doubles were used. Lillian Gish really was on the moving ice floe, and she dipped her hair and hand into the icy waters, losing feeling in her hand and needing her frozen hair chipped off!
However, Griffith ruined the moment by having Gish perfectly made up in the aftermath despite everyone suggesting nobody could come out of such an ordeal looking pristine, but the director got his way. Like Griffith or not, he was a director of great ambition and scope, capable of evoking the right emotions (and a few wrong ones) from people with either huge set pieces or the simplest touch.
This film has examples of both; the abovementioned rescue scene provides the thrills whilst gorgeously composed scenery shots courtesy of regular cameraman Billy Bitzer offer warmth and light to the bleakness of Anna’s plight. The biggest asset at Griffith’s disposal was the mercurial Lillian Gish, once again enchanting us with a mere glimpse of her expressive eyes, emotive performance and physical commitment to a role which at aged 27, she still pulls off with credibility.
Arguably old fashioned, a little uneven and in need of a trim, Way Down East remains a classic slice of melodrama from the silent era that reveals a rare restraint from its controversial director but one of the period’s most memorable performances from the legendary Lillian Gish.
* N.B – the version under review was a redacted version running 125 minutes. A comparison with a complete version on YouTube reveals some scenes have been trimmed or cut completely (mostly comedy scenes featuring supporting characters) and a number of the original and extraneous intertitles D.W Griffith was fond of being excised.