Friday, March 27, 2009

Film Review: Way Down East

"Way Down East" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Having reviewed three modern movies in a row it is time to break away and start to write about classic, meaningful films again.

I always mention my appreciation for silent cinema and I have written about filmmaker D.W. Griffith already (I reviewed his "Broken Blossoms"). But I thought I'd revisit his cinematic world again.

Griffith is seen as the father of American cinema. He is the man most often credited with introducing film techniques still used today such as the close-up, the iris shot, cross-cutting and fades. This, I believe, makes Griffith's work appear "modern" in a sense. I find it fascinating to watch his films and think to myself, this stuff must have thrilled audiences. Few filmmakers were using the medium the way Griffith did.

But how many people still watch Griffith today? If people do watch his films it is my guess it is probably film students forced to study him in school. But how many people watch his work for sheer pleasure? As a former film student I can honestly say I never had a conversation about Griffith in my four years of college.

Watching "Way Down East" (1920) I was amazed by certain things. The first shocking thing was the film's running length. "Way Down East" is two and a half hours long. Today audiences might not consider such a running time risky, but, ladies and gentlemen, this was 1920! Movies weren't so long back then. You have to remember comedians for example were still making one or two reelers. Imagine an audience sitting down for more than two hours watching a film back than. Heck, even today some people have a problem watching long movies. But Griffith really liked to make these epic length films. His "Orphans of the Storm" actually runs a bit longer as does his "Intolerance" which is over the three hour mark.

Another astonishing thing about "Way Down East" is the subject matter. Griffith's greatest collaborator Lillian Gish stars as Anna Moore. A poor, working class woman, whom while visiting her wealthy cousins, meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). A suave ladies man who seems taken by Anna and must make her his latest conquest.

This is actually unusual because during the first half of this film Gish is presented as a sexual being. Gish is not seen as the homely looking girl in "Broken Blossoms" but inspires deep passion in men. While Gish was a fine actress she never played roles which required her to be a temptress or flapper. Gish doesn't have that exotic look to her the way Greta Garbo did. And she is not the carefree flapper type the way Clara Bow or Louise Brooks were.

As the film presses on however, Sanderson and Anna spend a night of passion together which results in her having his baby. Sanderson is worried due to such events he will not inherit his father's fortune, so he tries to pay for her silence. After Anna refuses she decides to move to another town and have her baby there. But the shame of being an unwed mother will always follow her.

Even though there was no production code in effect in 1920 "Way Down East" is a morality play and does make the Anna character suffer a bit for her sinful actions. How exactly I won't reveal. But I wonder how shocking such a story as this was to audiences back then? Clearly there were unwed mothers back in 1920 but did making a film about it cause a social scandal? Just how risky was it to deal with this topic?

When Anna arrives in a new town she seeks employment with the Bartlett family, performing various house hold services. The head of the house, Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) at first is reluctant to hire her, afraid she might be a "loose woman" who will bring shame to his home but at the insistence of his wife (Kate Bruce), who quotes scripture to him, he decides to hire her. The plot thickens when the son, David (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with Anna but will her past matter to him?

It is said ever since "Birth of A Nation" was released in 1915 every film Griffith made afterwards was a response to the critics who called him a racist. That was supposedly why "Intolerance" was made and "Broken Blossoms" (thought to be the first film to deal with an interracial romance between a white woman and an Asian man). But "Way Down East" has similar themes to "Intolerance", mostly the "modern day" sequences. Both deal with social outcast, the vicious nature of gossip and both have a mother and child with an absent father. In "Intolerance" the father is in jail. It does seem though that every film Griffith was making was trying to correct social wrongs. Different races should come together. Society shouldn't judge unwed mothers so harshly but instead should put equal blame on the men who desert them. These must have been radical ideas to a 1920 audience.

If there is a flaw with "Way Down East" it is that it is simply too long. Griffith tries to cross-cut Anna's story while introducing the Bartlett's. When he does introduce the Bartlett's it felt as if it breaks the flow of Anna's story. Griffith could have easily taken an hour out of this film and still had a coherent masterpiece on his hands. There is actually some missing scenes. Kino, who has released this on DVD, uses photo stills in place of these scenes or just uses title cards explaining to us what is missing. It feels like anything Griffith shot made it into the final film. Someone should have sat down with Griffith and told him to cut some scenes out. And if he said no, they should have put up a fight. When the film was re-released in the 1930s it was cut a hour shorter. I have not seen that version but would like to see what changes were made.

I mentioned earlier how fascinating it is to watch Griffith's work and see cinematic devices being used in their heyday but while watching "Way Down East" I didn't really pay attention to it. Watching Griffith's early films those devices always seemed to call attention to themselves. Here though Griffith seems to have such confidence in his story everything moves along quite fluid. None of the techniques call out to us.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess were paired together in "Broken Blossoms" with Barthelmess as the Asian man. Here though it is Gish's show all the way. Her performance is both moving and convincing. That was the great touch of Griffith and Gish. They created such sympathetic characters. That is why Gish didn't fit as a flapper. I'm not saying the woman was unattractive but she had a look which just fit perfectly for these social outcast types.

Barthelmess isn't really given much to do with in my opinion. His name hasn't lived on the way Gish's has but during his day he was a star. He was nominated twice in the same year for "Best Actor" at the 1929 Academy Awards for his performances in "The Noose" and "The Patent Leather Kid". He also starred in "Tol' able David" as David. But here he just seems to be part of the scenery.

"Way Down East" is a great film and if it weren't for the running time I would probably give it four stars but the film needs edits. It's story doesn't justify it's length. Still the film has the ability to involve you. It seems clear what Griffith's intentions were and he largely succeeds thanks to Lillian Gish who gives one of her best performances here. If you've never seen a Griffith film or anything with Lillian Gish this is not a bad place to start.