Thursday, September 8, 2011

Way Down East (Griffith. 1920)

"A simple story for plain people."


I understand that the thought of a two and a half hour silent film from 1920 may not strike my readers as something that they have to hurry up and see, but I am going to try very hard to not rave about this film. D.W. Griffith is a controversial, groundbreaking and legendary filmmaker with a tendency to hold women and religion in high regard while promoting the negative and racist images of black people in the early 20th century. Commonly called the first great director in film history, Griffith made a fortune on expensive and epic productions like the infamous The Birth of a Nation (1915) and its rebuttal, Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916).

Though it was still a major hit upon release, Way Down East has sort of become a lesser known release from the great director. Filmed on a staggering $700,000 budget and starring the legendary Lillian Gish, this is a film that properly uses melodrama to create a highly emotional statement on the behavior of men and the treatment of women in the time period.

Lillian Gish shines as a naive country girl who is tricked into a sexual relationship with a rich scoundrel. The scoundrel, Sanderson, throws a fake wedding ceremony and impregnates Anna (Gish). After admitting the marriage was faked, he splits. Eventually the child is born and very ill. The child dies in the hands of his broken, humiliated and abandoned mother.

Things pick up for Anna when she is hired to work as a housekeeper for a man and his family. She even falls in love with the Squire's son, David. This is the beginning of a twisted soap opera-like love story that carries the film.

At two and a half hours, Way Down East seemed to be a very quick viewing. There was never a moment where I was not entertained by the action on screen. The acting is a tad overly dramatic, but you come to expect that from a Griffith picture. There is an epic ending scene that seems to be a bit out of place, but it ultimately works in the end. The one thing that I cannot forgive would be the several key missing scenes.

Having been released in 1920, Way Down East was not as well maintained as some of Griffith's other movies. In the version that I watched there were times when the screen would turn to black with white lettering that read "action missing". The text would go on to explain the missing action, which is nice, but I was so enthralled by the characters that it was a disappointing element.

I do not want to give anybody the wrong impression; the missing scenes do not ruin the film. It was simply a sad note to not get to see as much of Gish's great performance as possible. It makes you wonder what the early film industry thought about their craft. Was filmmaking just a way to make money? Or was it an art to be cherished? It has been said that Griffith was in film solely for the money, but I have a hard time believing that. Whether outright racist or in support of the common man, every film by him that I have seen has an overlying message. Unlike the director's of today, this is a man who said something important in each of his pictures. Agreeable or not, this is an admirable conquest for a director.

Way Down East had serious potential to end up on my sub-list of the 1077, Jake's 10 Perfect Movies. Upon serious thought over the film, I have decided to significantly downgrade it because of the missing scenes. Even after the long running time - I was asking for more.

Way Down East: B+

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