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Way Down East
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by Jay Seaver

"Solid silent cinema centered on a secret shame."
4 stars

"Way Down East" opens with a declaration - "A Simple Story for Plain People" - which must have seemed kind of patronizing even at the time the movie was released almost a hundred years ago. Maybe not; the working class perhaps felt a more complete separation from the wealthy than they do today, with the rigid morality on display here a point of pride for the common man. That's the way D.W. Griffith plays it, at least, and that sincerity does come through, even if a modern audience might be willing to find a few more shades of gray.

As the story starts, Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) and her mother are in a precarious position in their country home, so Anna is sent to Boston to seek the assistance of wealthy relatives. While there, she catches the attention of playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) and deceived about the extent of his love for her. This will put her on a path that leads to her being a servant to the Bartlett family, and while David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) is quite handsome, he is expected to marry the squire's niece Kate (Mary Hay). Plus, it turns out that the Sandersons' summer home is nearby, and Lennox threatens to expose Anna's history.

It was a different world back then, when pious New Englanders would apparently not look askance at what are apparently first or second cousins being betrothed but would shun Anna for a situation in which she was a victim who had already suffered plenty. Then again, it's not like the attitudes Anna would face have been completely (or even mostly, depending on one's circles) stomped out today, although the story might not need to go through such convolutions to make her clearly the aggrieved party. There's a certain hypocrisy to this - the film sets itself up as being about forgiveness and redemption, but it relies on extenuating circumstances more than actual generosity of spirit.

Structurally, the movie's a bit of an odd case as well. While it doesn't quite break cleanly into two halves the way a Bollywood musical does, Griffith and the various writers (of the original play, a prose "elaboration", and the screenplay) do turn nearly the entire supporting cast over as the film goes on and Anna moves to a new town. The shuffling is fairly awkward at times - David is rather shoehorned into the first half while an eccentric aunt is pushed off the stage just as soon as her use as a plot device is exhausted. The second half has a bevy of supporting characters without a whole lot to do, including one pairing whose appearance at the end is downright superfluous at best. Having those two (or,arguably, three) distinct stages to the movie does help reinforce the idea of not being able to escape one's history, and does give a strong indication of just how thoroughly Anna's world has been turned upside down.

Of course, Lillian Gish has some say in that; she makes Anna likable enough to pop out of the background even though one of her defining traits is her humility, with the moments when she does lose her temper all the more powerful for it. Her leading men are a nice enough pair, with Lowell Sherman doing a fine job of not allowing Lennox's weasel nature completely overwhelm his charm, while Richard Barthelmess does come off as more than a well-read hunk. Mary Hay and Creighton Hale liven the movie's second half as a pair of characters that are always fun to watch even if they don't feel the need to elbow their way to the front.

A few other things liven the movie up, though, from big country & city party scenes to a set of fairly impressive chase scenes, including a location-shot climax that may not necessarily look like much on first blush. Remember, though, that this was made in 1920, when there were not a whole lot of options for showing the characters doing something ridiculously dangerous beyond having the cast do something ridiculously dangerous. The ice floe scene that serves as this movie's finale was probably not exactly the sort of risk it appears to be - it was shot in temperatures frigid enough that frostbite was more of a concern than falling through the ice into the river, although that's kind of a terrifying trade-off.

Put it together with some good music (Jeff Rapsis did a fine job at this particular screening), and it's a rousing end to a film that still manages to entertain decades later. Some of the audience's attitudes have changed since it came out, hopefully for the better, but Griffith's craft and Gish's performance are as strong today as they were then, making this something that silent film fans should check out.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26267&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/09/14 00:11:49
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User Comments

7/17/14 @MsLillianGish What's a stunt double? I'll get on that ice floe 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  03-Sep-1920 (NR)

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