Thoughts on: “Way Down East”

No Rural America In Film Month is complete without Griffith’s 1920 blockbuster! One of my personal favorite silents, WAY DOWN EAST had the daunting task of taking a melodramatic, old-fashioned stage play (the kind many Edwardians made fun of) and turning it into a piece of art that could appeal to anyone. In my opinion, he delivered. Hope you enjoy the review!

Silent-ology

When Griffith told his company that he was going to film the well-known–and old-fashioned–stage play Way Down East, they reportedly all thought he was insane. As Lillian Gish would later recall, “Way Down East was a horse-and-buggy melodrama, familiar on the rural circuit for more than twenty years. As I read the play, I could hardly keep from laughing.”

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts on: “Way Down East”

  1. Thanks again for reposting this lovely piece! I think Way Down East is a film that endures; and, like you note, it does have more ‘modernizing’ touches, such as its condemnation of self-righteous hypocrisy (which also appeared in movies like Intolerance, another Griffith masterpiece).

    Your mention of how audiences winced at Griffith’s ‘comic’ touches of country bumpkinisms and the like reminded me of how John Ford, in even his greatest Westerns, such as The Searchers, was prone to do the same – which cause me to wince, also!

  2. Way down East is a wonderful film. I feel so bad each time in front of the scene where her baby has passed and she has understood it but does not wish to admit (before doctor comes and put the words on what’s happened).
    My only critic to this film (in its first part at least) is that Griffith has put too many titles: he often set in writing things we had already understood just by looking Gish’s face. And I fully agree that Gish’s interpretation is just exceptionnal.

    • She did a magnificent job–as per usual, of course. 😉

      Griffith seemed to favor a “narrator” touch in his dramas, it’s true. Probably the most over the top silent I’ve seen, in the title card department, was MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE (1924)– SO many title cards! And they were all so long…!

      • The John Barrymore SHERLOCK HOLMES was pretty terrible with overdone title cards too.

        Btw, is MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE available in decent format anywhere? I’ve wanted to see it for years now (I’m a sucker for 18th century things) but the versions online are so blurry.

      • I think Griffith developed this “narrator” touch step by step, film by film. If you look at his first films around 1909/10, there are even films where more titles would be welcome. Then moving to the lasts of his shorts films (1912/13), we have a more balanced number of titles. and this narrator touch is definitely present in his later (and longer) films.

        Despite I love Way Down East or Broken Blossoms, I tend to prefer silent films with less titles. My favourite film ever being Murnau’s “Last Laugh”.

        • The most competent silent films in general have less titles, I find. Too many often interrupt the action. The Last Laugh is a fantastic example of how much a filmmaker can do with less!

          I agree that some of the early, early DWG movies needed more titles at times. It’s an interesting evolution he had. His erring on the side of verbosity is also a symptom of his dreams of being a playwright. When you read the surviving drafts of his two plays A Fool and a Girl and War he tends to enjoy long speeches and such.

  3. Way Down East is also one of Griffith’s best love stories. While often the romances in his more conventional epics can feel a bit pallid (or perhaps too idealized), here I think Gish and Barthelmess have very warm chemistry together. After the hell Anna’s been through, you really do want to see her happy with someone that actually cares about her.

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