Way Down East (1920) A Silent Film Review

Director D.W. Griffith dives back into country melodrama with this adaptation of a hoary stage smash. Lillian Gish plays Anna, a country girl seduced and abandoned by a rich cad. The resulting baby dies and Anna is alone in the world. She meets the kindly Bartlett family and it seems that her life is taking a turn for the better… that is until her past is exposed.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Blu-ray and via streaming.

What was he thinking? Oh.

The story of making Way Down East is pure Hollywood. Director D.W. Griffith, in need of a hit, purchased the rights to a creaky, corny melodrama at a cost that was more than the total budget of his hit film, The Birth of a Nation.

Everyone, including his leading lady, Lillian Gish, was certain that Griffith was making a massive mistake. That is, until they saw the box office returns!

Griffith was in his element. His years of creating tight, entertaining melodramas for Biograph made him ideally suited for bringing Way Down East to the big screen. In his hands, the melodrama is not only palatable, it is downright compelling.

Lillian Gish plays Anna, a simple country girl who goes to stay with her relatives in the city. Once there, she meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a womanizer of the first water. Sanderson wants Anna but she is too good a girl to be had without a ring on her finger. So, Sanderson hires friends to impersonate a minister and witnesses and stages a mock marriage.

Anna is delighted by her marriage and even more delighted when she discovers that she is to have Sanderson’s child. At that point, he drops his bombshell and Anna faces the cruel world alone as an unwed mother. The child dies soon after birth and Anna wanders the countryside seeking work. She finally finds it at the farm of the Bartletts. Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh, who had worked with Gish when she was a child actress) and Mother Bartlett (Kate Bruce) take Anna in and treat her as one of the family. Their son, David (Richard Barthelmess) falls head over heels for her.

Lillian Gish takes on a saintly appearance as the much put-upon Anna.
Lillian Gish takes on a saintly appearance as the much put-upon Anna.

But there are complications. This is a melodrama, after all. David’s parents have intended for him to marry his cousin Kate (Mary Hay, Barthelmess’s real life wife). And she is being pursued by the eccentric but good-hearted professor (Creighton Hale).

But there is one more piece in the puzzle.

Kate is the newest interest of Squire Bartlett’s neighbor, Lennox Sanderson. What’s Anna to do? Will she risk exposure to save Kate? Will Sanderson tell her tale out of spite? Will the puritanical Squire Bartlett throw Anna out when he learns the truth? Well, like I said, this is a melodrama.

David, the first really nice guy in Anna's life.
David, the first really nice guy in Anna’s life.

I am a bit of a Griffith heretic in that I really do not care for either Birth of a Nation (couldn’t get past the intense racism) or Intolerance (groundbreaking but pretentious in the extreme). Griffith’s best stuff, for my money, comes when he is in pot-boiler mode. I love his old Biograph short features but most of his features leave me cold.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Way Down East is my favorite Griffith feature. Lillian Gish was never lovelier, with Griffith making her look like nothing less than a renaissance madonna in most scenes. In fact, great care is given to show Miss Gish in an overtly religious light. Richard Barthelmess, for his part, was never more boyish, Kate Bruce never more maternal. The famous climax, in which Miss Gish is thrust out into a blizzard is one of the most compelling and enduring images of silent film. This movie has it all!

Suffering for Art 101: The Blizzard
Suffering for Art 101: The Blizzard

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have flaws. For one thing, Griffith decided to retain the cornball humor from the original play. The eccentric professor’s pursuit of the flirty Kate would have been sufficient comedy relief but we are forced to endure a parade of hicks being so country that you just want to throw something at the screen. Comedy relief should not induce pain.

In general, the whole down-on-the-farm routine is spread a bit thick. As Carl Sandburg brought out in his review of the film, “The barn dance is too terribly and grandly barney and dancey. Seldom, if ever, have the American farmers gathered in so great and gay a haymow affair as is here staged. No farmers have time or imagination for such splediferous gayety among the cows and hay in the wintertime.”

Amen!

Virtue pays off in the end.
Virtue pays off in the end.

However, to counteract this barney-dancey vibe, we have the talents of the afore mentioned leads. There really is no way to praise Gish and Barthelmess enough. Lillian Gish was stuck playing yet another suffering saint but managed to infuse Anna with enough moxie and inner strength that the character is much more fascinating than the usual melodrama heroine. Her tasteful handling of her role as an unwed mother would hold her in good stead when, in 1926, she played the most famous literary single mother of them all: Hester Prynne.

Barthelmess was one of Gish’s best leading men. He had enough screen presence to stand up to Gish’s powerful performances (Lillian Gish tended to blow lesser actors off the screen). He is all youthful country charm, a role he would explore in greater depth in Tol’able David.

Gish in peril.
Gish in peril.

Finally, there is that blizzard. Griffith took his crew on location and waited for an actual blizzard to start. The scenes of Lillian Gish staggering around snow blind and half-frozen are quite real. The frost on her face, the icicles on her eyelashes… The whole scene surpasses the finest 3D CG blizzards in modern films because it is real and we know that it is real.

Lillian Gish wrote that she did not want to be prettied up for this scene. She felt that someone who had survived a blizzard should look the part.
Lillian Gish wrote that she did not want to be prettied up for this scene. She felt that someone who had survived a blizzard should look the part.

The ensuing race to the rescue across the broken ice is a combination of real footage of a frozen river and some pretty convincing sets. It is a real heart-stopper in the finest melodramatic tradition. So, if you are in the mood for a real barnstormer of a melodrama, the finest quality of course, then Way Down East is the film for you. It’s not art, not really. Just some splendidly crafted entertainment that will transport you to another time.

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Where can I see it?

Way Down East is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray (I recommend the Kino edition with the new score) and for online streaming.

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Sometimes movies can improve when paired with one another. In this case, Way Down East and The Ascent. One is a famous 1920 tale of unwed motherhood and blizzards. The other is a lesser-known but brilliant 1977 Soviet film ostensibly about World War II but scratch the surface and you find Golgotha.

Both films are quite different in tone and style but they also have interesting elements in common. And not just the fact the both leads have icicles on their faces.

The Ascent (1977)

In Nazi-occupied Belarus, two Soviet soldiers are chosen to fetch badly-needed supplies from a nearby farmhouse that houses Soviet sympathizers.

But when they arrive, they find the house burned to the ground and the entire family arrested and shot. Driven deeper and deeper into occupied territory, the two soldiers are forced to confront their own patriotism, courage, fear, spirituality and, finally, death.

Russian soldier Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) begins to freeze in the forests of Belarus. Note the icicles on his eyelashes and frost on his coat. Both are very real. The film was made on location.
Russian soldier Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) begins to freeze in the forests of Belarus. Note the icicles on his eyelashes and frost on his coat. Both are very real. The film was made on location.

The Ascent is not a happy film but it is an astonishingly beautiful one. Most of the movie takes place out in the blinding white snow. The stark black and white cinemetography adds to the feeling of bleakness and despair. The actors are lovingly filmed. And as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is more than a tale of World War II. Through both subtle and obvious images, director Larisa Shepitko managed to create a Passion Play right under the noses of the Soviet censors.

Seemingly weak, schoolteacher-turned-soldier Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) is the one who is able to remain true to his values when he and his companion, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) are eventually arrested by the Nazi collaborators. The burly Rybak turns out to be all talk. He betrays his friend and his country to their captors.

Ex-schoolteacher and current Nazi collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), the devil in a sweater vest.
Ex-schoolteacher and current Nazi collaborator Portnov (Anatoli Solonitsyn), the devil in a sweater vest.

The standout performance, though, is Anatoli Solonitsyn (one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s regulars) as Portnov, another schoolteacher who has sided with the Nazis and acts as their interrogator.

Solonitsyn reveals the depravity and deep melancholy of a character who has sold his soul and knows that he is damned. His only solace is in forcing others to equally betray themselves. In the end, he is the only character who truly understands Sotnikov’s refusal to bow under pressure and that understanding gnaws at his own conscience. Portnov is too far gone for redemption so he must destroy rather than preserve.

Sotnikov and his Judas, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), navigate the Nazi-occupied countryside.
Sotnikov and his Judas, Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin), navigate the Nazi-occupied countryside.

And so we have a triad of character: Sotnikov’s messianic figure, Rybak’s Judas and Portnov’s Pilate/tempter.

On that note, one element of the film that I do regret is that a character later calls Rybak Judas directly. It seemed unnecessary and uncharacteristically heavy-handed for Shepitko. For the most part, though, the portrayals of Sotnikov in a religious light are kept just below the surface of the film, ready for a viewer to dig them up and appreciate them.

Director Larisa Shepitko and cinematographer Vladimir Chukhnov used lighting to turn a soldier into a saint.
Director Larisa Shepitko and cinematographer Vladimir Chukhnov used lighting to turn a soldier into a saint.

The Ascent is a difficult movie to watch. The intensity of the tragedy makes it a film that you need to work yourself up to seeing. But its deeply rewarding if you take the trouble and time to watch it.

Why am I talking about this movie in a review about Way Down East? Well, the stylized realism combined with the spiritual allegories reminded me of Lillian Gish’s best silent work. I think The Ascent is a movie she would have appreciated. And the snowy wastelands of Belarus make me think that D.W. Griffith would have approved.

Stylistically, Shepitko has some similarities to Griffith. Both favored filming their stars as religious icons. While Shepitko had the more subtle touch, both had a talent for making war pictures that touched on the deeper human condition rather than merely glamorising the battles. You might say that I found an echo of Griffith and Gish in this film. I have no idea whether Shepitko was ever exposed to their films but you can sense a kindred spirit.

Availability: Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.