in about 100 words or less
Considered by many as the father of film, D.W. Griffith is arguably the most influential filmmaker of the silent era. Best known for his epic drama, The Birth of a Nation (1915), his other films are often overshadowed by the controversy surrounding this now infamous Civil War drama. Of the over 500 films that he directed, Way Down East (1920) is perhaps his best and most enjoyable.
As with many of Griffith’s films, Way Down East contains a commentary on morality and social injustices. In this case, Griffith focuses on the differences between rural and urban values through a story about a country girl named Anna (Lillian Gish), who falls prey to an adulterous boyfriend who betrays her trust. Despite the subject material, and Griffith’s propensity to preach, Way Down East is not weighed down by overwrought moralizing.
An intimate story, based on Lottie Blair Parker’s 1897 stage play of the same name, Way Down East was already well-known by the time that Griffith brought it to the silent screen. As such, it is not surprising that this late Victorian-styled drama appealed to a man like Griffith who espoused “traditional” values. It also served as a near perfect vehicle for his leading lady, the ever youthful Lillian Gish, who embodied the vulnerable country girl. Despite the old-fashioned morals which are at the heart of this film’s premise, Way Down East remains an entertaining film, for not only Gish’s powerful performance, but as a result of Griffith’s ability to adapt the play for cinema. Likewise, the issues of abandonment and social stigma were not only still relevant, but served to create audience compassion for the downtrodden Anna.
The film’s melodramatic plot is fashioned from the seduction of a naive young woman by a dishonorable city man named Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who tricks Anna into a fake wedding for his own pleasure and amusement. Left unmarried with a dying child, Anna attempts to re-make her life while hiding the truth about her past. Left to fend for herself, she finds employment as a servant girl on a farm in an idyllic country setting. Innocently attracting the attention of her employer’s son David (Richard Barthelmess), she finds herself in love again, but rejects his advances, over her own guilt and shameful past. Eventually, through a series of coincidences, rumors about her begin to circulate, and eventually lead to her dismissal. In learning the truth about the role that Sanderson played in her predicament, David braves a blizzard in search of Anna that results in a dangerous chase along an icy river toward her rescue. Spotting her unconscious on an ice floe, headed toward a waterfall, David’s efforts to save his wife-to-be must have had audiences sitting on the edges of their seats as he hopped across ice pans in an effort to save his true love.
In the film’s climax, we witness some of the most incredible scenes in silent cinema. Anna’s rescue was not only highly realistic in 1920, but is quite good, even by today’s standards. Filmed in Vermont and Connecticut, these daring and dangerous looking scenes were reportedly performed by the film’s stars, Gish and Barthelmess, undoubtedly added to the film’s realism. Griffith’s association with famed cinematographer Gottfried Wilhelm “Billy” Bitzer, who developed many camera techniques used in silent cinema, further contributed to the dramatic effect of the daring rescue that was captured on-location.
Griffith’s pioneering editing techniques, which by 1920 were well established, also served him well in this production. His use of shot length, juxtaposition, cross-cutting, close-ups and stock footage were put to good use in helping intensify the action, and build audience tension and fear during the rescue attempt. Though a small local waterfall was replaced with shots from Niagara Falls, there is very little about the cinematography which does not seem authentic. Dangling in the icy water, Anna’s hand became an iconic image associated with not only this film, but with Lillian Gish, whose efforts resulted in frostbite and a legacy of pain, which she suffered for the remainder of her life.
In exploring the moral issues surrounding Anna’s predicament, which is critical of the righteous condemnation of the unwed mother, Way Down East reflected a shift toward more modern societal norms. As reported in the Motion Picture News (1920:852) Way Down East was not devoid of controversy, being denounced in Baltimore by Rev. Dr. De Witt M. Benham, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, who stated in local newspapers that the film was “shockingly indecent and unfit for any decent person to see”. Despite these assertions, the article notes that the majority of audience members who were questioned, were neither shocked nor felt that is was indecent, but rather, that it was a “thing of art.”
As one of Griffith’s most successful films, it seems that audiences were almost certainly entertained as well. In reuniting Gish and Barthelmess, who played together in Broken Blossoms (1919), Griffith must have recognized the value of their on-screen chemistry. As Griffith’s muse, Gish and her naturalistic performance-style played a major role in the film’s success, and was notably recognized by William L. Sherrill in the Motion Picture News as “a performance, the like of which has never been seen on stage or screen” (1920:2255).
If there is any criticism to be made about this outstanding silent-era production, it is its lengthy running time of 145 minutes. While 90 minutes or so, would have been sufficient to tell this relatively simple story, it seemed not only the fashion of epic films of the day, to be shot at extraordinary length, but it also may have legitimized the premium price that was charged for a seat in the theatre (Klaus Ming July 2016).