The beginning of the nineteen-twenties heralded a decade of marvels, both major and minor: F. Scott Fitzgerald published his magnum opus The Great Gatsby, flapper dresses became the rage, the Academy awards began, talkies were on the horizon and the Great Wall Street crash was looming. In tinsel town, as the year turned 1920, D. W. Griffith delivered yet another masterpiece in his prolific career with Way Down East. The story follows country girl Anna Moore (Lillian Gish, of course) as she suffers trials of love, lust, shame and redemption due to her naivety in the dichotomous society of the USA.
Griffith’s filmmaking style consistently and comfortably falls into the realm of melodrama and this is certainly the case in Way Down East. Each dramatic twist, of which there are plenty, is captured in Griffith’s idiosyncratic long takes to squeeze Gish of every dramatic drop in her most traumatic or overly romanticised moments. These takes are frustratingly long, but Griffith does capture these moment extraordinarily well. Gish has never portrayed such a sympathetic and moving heroine before. Gish’s expressive eyes and wonderfully emotive expressions communicate such heartache for a tumultuous life. One need only witness the terrible sense of confusion in such innocent eyes as a Doctor relays a Mother’s worst nightmare. While the melodramatic style can be frustrating, and is now extinct, it aids the style of this particular picture.
Interestingly, this plot exudes an infusion of great literary landmarks like Tess of the D’ubervilles in the naive country girl, a Tale of Two Cities as rich society and bucolic simple country life collide, and the romantic aspects are certainly reminiscent of a Bronte novel.The plot evolves very naturally, from a simple quest of Anna to obtain money from rich cousins, to falling madly in love with a nefarious Lothario, to exile in the country and finding a surrogate family. Griffith paces the progression of the story leisurely, developing the fractured love quadrangles of the group and Anna’s harsh education to real life.
A wonderful additive to Griffith’s repertoire in this piece is a level of humour hardly found within his prior work. Although many of these comedy moments are tonally awkward, they are necessary to counteract the coldness of the rich society and lighten Anna’s continual despair. It may be slapstick at its most boring, falling into laps, bumping into things, eggs splattering and the rest of the dire list, but it does humanise the country characters into a loveable and lively group. Some of Griffith’s most interesting characters dwell here, the love stricken professor, the scripture obsessed squire, the sweet hearted saviour, the gossiping aunt and many more. They are a true group of personalities, even if they are caricatures.
Griffith rivals his own work in one swift move here. The epic depiction of Intolerance and the intimate love story of Broken Blossoms is combined into a moving and gorgeously captured film. Anna and her transformation from innocence to wretchedness and new mature woman through various forms of love is a story which will stand the test of time. The cinematography of Way Down East exquisitely paints lofty high life effortlessly and the seasonal changes of the country across a gargantuan canvass as well as intimate details. Way Down East delights not so much in creating spectacle, but rather creating a verisimilitudinous world beyond Griffith’s existing filmography. Way Down East is a world of lazy summer days with endless fields and harsh winters which Griffith captures as nothing short of mythic.
Following Griffith’s career chronologically, it is apparent Way Down East is also Griffith’s personal journey to a maturity in subject matter and point of view with an ever refining mode of production. It just might be his greatest yet.
The climax of Way Down East is by far the most exciting, possibly of Griffith’s career. Anna’s past life is spilled before her surrogate family and in a fit of shame and madness, Anna runs out into the swirling blizzard. Anna collapses on a sheet of ice which breaks free and flows rapidly towards a raging waterfall. David, Anna’s true love, races after her. Jumping ice floe to ice floe in a race against time as the unconscious Anna slips towards her death. Will he make it in time? Griffith’s epic eye and his editing technique coalesce harmoniously in this climax.