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From the Vaults: 'Way Down East' (1920)

April 9, 2010 |  5:40 am

WaydowneastFive years after “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith directed this five-hankie melodrama based on a hugely popular stage play. If you're fond of rambling 19th century novels or four-week 1970s TV miniseries, with tragic heroines and broad casts of colorful characters, here's the 1920 silent film equivalent. Lillian Gish stars as Anna (“But we may as well call her Woman” intone the title cards), who undergoes 147 minutes of trial and tribulation before she can find happiness.

Yep, that's a two and a half-hour silent film. I sat down the other night thinking “Well, let's see how much of this we can get through tonight.” But 145 minutes later I was still on the couch, completely engrossed, bellowing “Look out for the waterfall!” Griffith knew what he was doing, it seems. And thankfully there are no Klansmen to be found at all.

The first half of the plot is straight out of “Tess of the D'Urbervilles.” Anna's mother sends her to the big city to request financial help from wealthy relatives. (Mothers: Do not do this.) Anna falls afoul of a heartless, resplendently lipstick-clad seducer (Lowell Sherman; and yeah, I know the silent film actors all wear lipstick, but he just wears it so very well) and returns home bearing a shameful bundle, ending up in a home for fallen women. Eventually she finds work with a farm family. Can she find love with the family's kind, strapping son (the achingly beautiful Richard Barthelmess)?


WaydowneThe heavy-handed title cards make sure we understand that seducers are bad and innocent young ladies are good. Example: “Within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy.” They might as well print out the full lyrics of “She's More to Be Pitied Than Censured.”

But I do have to admit the cards are well deployed. During crucial revelations, only a few lines appear on a title card at a time: “There was a baby but there weren't – no – HUSBAND!” I'm not sure how much of this is original and how much is due to the restoration, apparently done by the Museum of Modern Art, but it works.

Unfortunately, we haven't got every single minute of “Way Down East”; a few scenes have to be represented by stills, or by title cards reading “Scene Missing” often followed by meaty-sounding material like “Seth and the Constable start to fight” or “Sandleford tries to embrace Kate. She runs away.”

But there's still quite a lot of movie here. This thing must have cost a pile of money; Griffith uses an endless-seeming array of sets, from a New England farmhouse to a lavish ball in Boston to a series of small-town streets to, most famously, a climactic race across ice floes on a frozen river. (“The ice jam gives way – rushing to the falls.”) And the costumes are no slouch either; the wealthy Boston cousins are particularly dazzlingly turned out. But it was a good investment – this was one of Griffith's last big successes.

The length is padded, I guess for a more epic feel, with a batch of old-timey stock characters, such as “The dread minion of the Law – Rube Whipple, Constable,” who walk around in comical stiff or shambling postures, sort of like characters from “Blondie.” (Remember, Blondie got her start as a 1920s flapper.) There are a few subplots involving various rural high jinks and romances, but fortunately most of the show belongs to Lillian Gish's Anna.

I'd only seen Gish before in clips from “Birth of a Nation” and in the wonderful 1955 “Night of the Hunter' (in which she holds a shotgun across her knees and sings that fabulous duet with Robert Mitchum, who's hiding in the shadows near her front porch – oh boy, I love that movie). So it was fantastic to just sit and watch her do her thing. She's just captivating, whether she's being flirty, grief-stricken or righteously wrathful. Even when she's just rolling out biscuit dough in a tragically defeated manner, you can't take your eyes off her, and you never stop worrying about her. She carries the movie on her tiny shoulders.

You can watch the ice scene floe chase here:

And you can read the lyrics to “She's More To Be Pitied Than Censured” here. (There's an audio version on YouTube, but trust me, you don't want to hear it.)

Next Friday, we return to kitschy horror with a 1960 opus by William Castle! The week after that we'll return to 1920, and continue to alternate, as always, between those years until I run out of movies or Larry tells me to stop. Have a nice week!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images: The fantastically gorgeous poster; Lowell Sherman prepares to put his dastardly moves on the naively flirtatious Gish. United Artists.