Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Way, Way, Way Down

Film: Way Down East
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I took a gander at another film by D.W. Griffith, and his fourth in the first eight films on The List. The film in question is Way Down East, a domestic drama that I think is fairly safe from ever being remade based on the characters and the situation. It’s not one that works well in today’s world. We start with young Anna (Lillian Gish), a poor country girl sent to the city to visit her wealthier relations.

It is here that Anna meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). Sanderson is a rake, and a user of women. Interested only in his own pleasure, Sanderson woos the young woman, perhaps not really knowing that she’s merely a poor relative and not someone who comes from money herself. Regardless, Sanderson convinces Anna to marry him in secret, allowing him to continue using women as he wishes, but also giving him the pleasure and company of Anna’s bed. Naturally, Anna gets pregnant, which is the cue for Sanderson to admit the marriage was a sham and abandon her and her infant, Trust. When Trust dies (and yes, you should read that as “trust” dying as well), the now abandoned and alone Anna is forced to fend for herself. She does so by making her way to the Bartlett estate and begging for a job.

Here she meets David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess), the son of the squire (Burr McIntosh). David quickly becomes enamored of the pretty Anna, but she keeps her distance thanks to her unusual past. Things come to a head when Lennox shows up in the area sniffing around the squire’s niece Kate and discovers his abandoned “wife” in the area.

And it’s here that I will confer with fellow 1001 blogger Squish Lessard. In his review of this film, he decries the melodrama, which is ample. I’m not personally adverse to melodrama when it works (Night of the Hunter), but when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. Way Down East suffers from many of the same problems that comedies have had since comedies began. If someone—anyone—would just say something, all of the problems get resolved instantly. A movie that trades on the idea that everyone has to act like a complete idiot is a movie that has failed in the plot department. One person making a single comment cuts this plot off at the knees and cuts the last act completely.

See, our poor little Anna is branded as a harlot and a loose woman because she’s a) unmarried and b) has had a child. Except that she got married, and sex and having kids are a part of being married. She’s married, f’cryin’ out loud! The fact that she isn’t really married is because Lennox is a bastard, not because she’s wanton—he lied to her. All she has to do is tell someone and produce the damned certificate of marriage, or find a witness, and her good name is restored and Lennox Sanderson is viewed for the abandoning woman-user that he is. But no, it’s all to the plot that Anna must remain silently suffering this agony and these terrible accusations about her person and character. If she had a single ounce of backbone, our movie ends at the ninety minute-or-so mark. But instead of suing the bastard for breach of contract and a host of other legal niceties, she instead runs out on an ice floe in an effort to destroy herself (and it’s worth noting that Lillian Gish suffered for the rest of her life from complications involving the ice floe garbage).

No movie should depend on the plot device of everyone involved being a damned idiot, but that’s what we get from Griffith here. People are either mean-stupid or noble-stupid. Enjoying this movie means enjoying the company of really stupid people. More than that, they are a people with a very strange morality. It’s such a complete throwback to dark, dark days when the woman who is lied to and abused is held responsible. Essentially, Anna is a pariah not because she had a child out of marriage, but because she allowed herself to be lied to, and when she finally does reveal the complete truth behind her terrible secret, it's too little, too late. Moreover, the moral stance of the bulk of the cast is coming from a collection of people who would like to see David and Kate get married…and they’re cousins.

Compounding on this particular frustration is Griffith’s penchant for playing morality boss in a good number of his title cards. While I’m certain his intent was to be moral, the reality is that he comes off as pedantic.

The real shame here, though, is that Way Down East has all of the makings of a great screwball comedy. Instead, Griffith goes for doom, gloom, and message, message, message. Film was still in its infancy in 1920, and Griffith shows it here because he delivers the message of the film with his usual subtlety—that of a cricket bat applied to the temple. I felt beaten down by this film rather than what I assume was the intended uplift of the ending.

The other problem with making this into a comedy is that Griffith really isn’t funny. He has several comic relief characters here, and none of them are the least bit comic, or offer any relief. Furthermore, a great deal of the trouble in this film is caused by town busybody Martha (an uncredited Vivia Ogden), who ends up married to the man who has pursued her for a couple decades. Why the hell would anyone want such a nasty, evil-faced, self-important bint to get anything like a happy ending? Only in Griffith-land.

One more Griffith film to go. Thank God.

Why to watch Way Down East: Classic silent drama and the lovely Lillian Gish.
Why not to watch: The plot could be solved half way through with a single sentence.


  1. Ah, we've come so far from our Taliban past...

  2. Some of us have. A quick look through our political landscape suggests that a number of us are still mired in Old Testament justice.

  3. I think of all the D.W. films I've watched, Way Down East is easily my favourite. Now I realize that that is not saying much, as I loathe most of his films.

    Still, there is some real entertainment value in Way Down East, at least once you get past the melodrama. Granted, Griffith's attempt at humor is also pretty lame, but for me, the ice flow scene was pretty remarkable and made the movie -probably not so much for the "special effects" but the lack thereof and the very real dangers the shooting posed.

  4. Boy, if this one is your favorite, I can't say I'm looking forward to Orphans of the Storm at all.

    So is it that silent dramas don't translate well, or is it simply that Griffith doesn't translate well?

  5. The wife told me she believes the D. W. stands for "Don't Watch".

    For me, silents are a visual medium, and the dialog plays second fiddle to camera work. Where Griffith excels, from My Own Over-sized And Under-Used Brain (hereafter known as MOO-SAU-UB) is in creating a gorgeous image. I find the picture that you chose for your article an excellent example of his careful creation of the right image. I have no doubt that there was cream in that butter churn and can practically hear the creaking that accompanies the rocking of the chair.

    I think Griffith does not translate very well, for all his prejudices. The man who provided black-faced white actors as shiftless former slaves and referred to one of his PROTAGONISTS as CHINKY was the same man that wanted to teach the country about "INTOLERANCE".

    While he may have created a nice pedestal from which to supervise the development of the movie industry, many followers have built much taller platforms.

  6. Your wife is awesome.

    Food for thought, Ken. I haven't really considered Griffith from a purely visual standpoint. I've looked at story and at technique, but you've given me something to consider when I take a look at Orphans of the Storm.

    I almost want to go back and see a few of these again to see if I can separate the melodrama and overacting from the visual style.

  7. Talkies are full of memorable lines. From "Here's looking at you, kid" to "Go ahead, make my day" to "Hasta la vista baby" and "yippie ki ay Mother....." I can't think of a single quote from a silent film. Much like ballet and opera, they were forced to use melodrama and overacting to tell the story that talkies have learned can be established with a few lines of well constructed dialog.

    I'm not a film historian but I have always wanted to pretend to be one.

  8. FYI
    I just turned that picture into my computer desktop. Such an interesting image. Not sure what kind of testimonial that is since I change desktops every two weeks but silent film images adorn my desktop 60% of the time.

  9. I do the same thing, although less frequently with silent films. My desktop right now is a still from Fantastic Planet, chosen by my daughter. She picked it because it looked "freaky" and because one of the characters looked like it was "wearing Jell-o."

  10. I agree with Ken, silents are best viewed as a visual medium.

    I have come to prefer silent films with fewer inter-titles, which are generally some of the best silent productions. In this regard i've become a big fan of Murnau's films which minimize the use of "dialogue". Tabu (1931) is probably his best work with the least amount of inter-titles.

  11. To that end, one of the most visually arresting silents (and no titles!) is The Man with the Movie Camera. When I reviewed that, I said I probably wouldn't want to watch it again anytime soon, but I was wrong. I find myself recalling moments of that one months later.

  12. The Man with the Movie Camera is absolutely one of the best examples of this - and was one of the first silent films that I reviewed when i started my blog.

    While D.W.'s films do have technical merit, they are most memorable for what is "wrong" with them - which is ultimately too much of a distraction for me to appreciate what might be worthwhile watching.

  13. I think that sums up Griffith nicely. I think I said in one of my reviews something along the lines of "technical excellence in pursuit of ugly art." I'll leave it at that.

  14. I was watching one of the later episodes from Downton Abbey's third season last night and the servants were walking back from the village after going to the movies. And they started taling about "Way Down East" and the virtues of American films vs. British films. (I didn't recognize any of the British names they mentioned.)


    1. Griffith's films are worth seeing because of their importance. It will be a frigid day in Hades when I say that his films are worth seeing for their entertainment value.