Sunday, September 23, 2018

Way Down East (1920)

Another movie that's been sitting on my DVR for some time is D.W. Griffith's 1920 silent Way Down East. The movie should be in the public domain but is also available in multiple DVD editions.

Lillian Gish plays Anna Moore, a poor country girl who is sent to the big city by her mother (Mrs. David Landau) in the hopes that her wealthy cousins will take her in. Those cousins don't really care for the naïve country girl, but there is one crazy rich aunt who does, so Anna gets trotted out to the parties. It's at one of these parties that she's noticed by Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman).

Anna thinks he's nice, but that's because she doesn't know better r know anything about big-city ways. Lenox is, in fact, a ladies' man who goes through one woman after another reminiscent of Walter Matthau's character in Cactus Flower. To get the chaste Anna into bed, Lowell comes up with a scheme of making a phony wedding so that Anna will think they're married, and then he can have sex with her. But of course, Lowell dumps her, so she leaves for another small town.

The only problem is that that one night of sex left Anna knocked up, as always happens in Hollywood movies. SO here you have a woman who isn't really married, and doesn't really have any way to support the child she's about to give birth to. The one saving grace, if you can call it that, is that the baby is sickly and isn't going to live very long. Can the movie get more melodramatic? Why yes, it can! Poor Anna gets evicted, and has to find a job.

She's lucky that she's able to get a job with the Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). He's got a sun in David (Richard Barthelmess), and a niece (David's cousin), whom it is hoped David will marry. But David takes a fancy to nice Anna. Of course she has her past that she fears makes her unmarriageable. Worse, she has to deal with the Squire, who has fairly strict Christian values and would probably throw Anna out if he found out about her past. On top of that, Lowell shows up living across from the Bartletts, and clearly he knows a fair bit about Anna's past.

He's not the only one, as there are a bunch of gossips in town, and one of the old biddies who knew Anna back when she had the baby shows up, so you just know Squire Bartlett is going to find out. The end result is that Anna runs out of the Bartlett house at the height of a blizzard and tries to cross a river full of ice floes, an iconic scene from silent cinema.

There's a lot interesting about Way Down East, although it's not without its problems. The climax on the ice floes is certain exciting, and dangerous -- that was really Lillian Gish on the ice. But the movie is very slow developing with the result that at times it feels a bit of a slog. It's also pretty darn melodramatic, as I found myself wondering just how much more Griffith was going to dump on poor Anna. Even with those problems, I'd still highly recommend Way Down East.

Fox remade Way Down East (actually, it was based on an old stage play so technically even the Griffith version could be considered a remake) in 1935, but I haven't seen that one yet.

1 comment:

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