D.W. Griffith – Way Down East

Way Down East (Griffith 1920) will be summed up with three words, tragedy, ice, and jokes. A far cry from his earlier epic film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), this movie is toned down in terms of over the top everything. It is like he turned his hyperbole meter back to ten, instead of eleven. Truly and honestly, I found most of the movie boring, however, there are definitely some aspects of this film that intrigue me. Griffith’s use of close-ups on Anna (Lillian Gish), interesting editing for the time period, and use of sound effects, kept me interested enough to sit through the 2+ hours of the film.

From beginning to end Lillian Gish has many close-ups emphasizing a wide range of emotions. Actually, I think every emotion that she felt got a close-up, but I like that. Way Down East is a silent, black and white movie so facial expressions are important. Gish does an great job showing exactly how she feels in key scenes just with her face. When she is happy, elated, torn apart, dejected, suicidal, etc… I could tell just from the close-ups. Of course the film had other cues as to which emotion she would be feeling, but they were forgettable where her face was not. Without question, watching Lillian Gish in this film made me sit through the whole thing.

Now, on to the odd part of the film. It has only been a week since I watched an earlier Griffith film, however, I do not recall any sound effects at all. In this Griffith production there were some sound effects. Now, prior (and during) posting this I tried to do some research to see if that was a part of the original production or some added-on snippet in a remastering. As of now, I have no answer, therefore I will continue to write as if it belongs there. To me, the few sound effects that were in the film were oddly placed and too minimal. If Griffith intended for sound effects to be a part of the film, they should have been more prevalent. Obviously, any sound heard during a silent film, today, is a researched score that was played at the actual theater, and then placed on top of the film, giving today’s audience a feel of what it would be like in sight and sound in 1920. With that said, I do not think it too far fetched that they would include sound effects, silly maybe, but not improbable. But, I restate my opinion on this, if sound effects were intended then Griffith should have used more, or only used them during the final scene. There is knocking randomly, a plate breaking, and then the rushing river. These were the main parts that I noticed the sound. Scratch it all and keep the end sound only, that’s what I say.


Now that I have brought up the ending, let’s talk about that. Great scene, a classic. Lillian as Anna has fainted on an ice patch that is rushing down the river towards the falls as David (Richard Barthelmess) pounces to her rescue. The quick editing between Lillian being swept away and David literally jumping from ice patch to ice patch is suspenseful, clever, and actually fun to watch. Griffith’s editing here is fantastic, rushing the scene as the river runs. Glorious.

Finally, the last two aspects of the film that I want to bring up are the overuse of comedy for a melodrama, and to simply state it, the classic comedy structure of the film. As they say, It’s a comedy if it ends in a wedding, and this had three. The use of humor in this film was everywhere. There were more jokes than actual storyline here. The film switches from stricken Lillian over her predicament, to the goofy townsfolk of Bartlett. Even though a classic comedy is not a comedy as we know it today, Griffith sort of blended the two ideas, in the classical and contemporary sense, to give us this film. Therefore as I finish this post, I will change my stance (as usual), watch it, get some laughs, enjoy Lillian Gish and the ending scene. Oh, and tell me, did you find it weird that the movie ended with Lillian kissing her mother-in-law and not her new husband?



Next Week: Josef von Sternberg – Der Blaue Engel “The Blue Angel”