Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Way Down East (1920) - Directed by D.W. Griffith

If Griffith’s films come across as nearly perversely melodramatic, it’s because they are meant to be. Take Way Down East for example. The entire plot revolves around a woman who is taken through the wringer in an exploitative way. This is almost tortuous melodrama, stuff that quivers and vibrates with fragile broken-heartedness, deep melancholy, a bit of camp, and replete with the expectation that only through proper penitence and insult, can one rise above the fray. Griffith is clearly interested in deriving as much sympathy for his lead character as can possibly be garnered and then some. This film pleads for a deluge of pathos, and in fact earns it. Why? Two words......Lillian Gish. Griffith’s film works so well due to the ever present miraculousness of the luminescent Lillian Gish, who elevates what could be contrivance into a passion-play. With Gish at the forefront, she makes this film into an epic, near-biblical examination of persecution and saintliness. She makes this film essential viewing.

Based on a 1890’s Victorian stage melodrama, Griffith’s film is about a young woman named Anna (Gish), who is a rather poor country girl. She comes into contact with a rich playboy named Lennox (Lowell Sherman), who is attracted to Anna and who convinces her to enter into a secret tryst, convincing her to marry. But actually tricks her into a fake marriage. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, she becomes pregnant and Lennox subsequently leaves her with nothing to her name. Even her young child dies and she’s left with only her bag as she walks a dirt road in the country. She manages to get hired by a man named Squire Bartlett, who lets her help out at his farmhouse, while she tries to keep her past a secret.

Hovering over the film is a rather heavyhanded but ultimately effective tone, which comes from several intertitles placed throughout. These reflect an Old Testament-like rigidity regarding the perspective of men and women, and an attempt to portray “Woman” as being the more highly evolved being. It’s all rather cloying when taken out of context. In this film though, it works to further the feeling the film is trying to invoke, which is a heightened emotional turmoil, and the fact this woman is up against all odds. Not only is Anna challenged by  the predatory sexual nature of “Man”, but she is also contrived against by all manner of self-righteousness……that of the film’s overarching narrative point of view, but also that of characters like Squire Bartlett, who throws Anna out in the snow once her past “sins” are revealed. For Anna, where is the forgiveness that can be provided her? Where is her shelter? Where is her comfort? I’m not saying that Griffith means anything harmful toward women in general or this Anna character. What I am saying, is that the film achieves a saintly transcendence through the perseverance that Anna must go through, almost in the way that Dreyer would convey spiritual purity in the face of evil in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Rising above the fray is Lillian Gish in one of her greatest roles. Somehow she manages to elevate what could be trite material into something magnetic and riveting. Here she is cast, perhaps even typecast, as a put-upon woman whom the audience must sympathize with. She reaches an angelic moment when she attempts to baptize her son as he is struggling for life. Her visual expression during this scene is quite something. What I love about Gish is her passion. She desperately sells herself to the camera in the most giving way. When the camera is in close-up on her face, she lets you in, without pretense or self-consciousness. She doesn’t play up for dramatic effect. She doesn’t give you falsity. She is absolute truth. Of course the climactic ice-floe sequence is justifiably famous and still plays well today. Through the use of editing, Griffith is able to give us the impression that Gish is flowing down the river on a chunk of ice toward her impending doom over the edge of the falls. It’s a brilliantly conceived and memorable finish to this silent masterpiece, which is a testament to effective melodrama and the lovely Lillian Gish.


Sam Juliano said...

"What I am saying, is that the film achieves a saintly transcendence through the perseverance that Anna must go through, almost in the way that Dreyer would convey spiritual purity in the face of evil in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)."

Jon this is a brilliant point in what is yet another one of your exceptional reviews of Griffith's cinema. It's certainly a melancholic film that boasts yet another unforgettable performance from Lillian Gish, who does as you note bring the work into epic territory. The climax on an icy river is one of Griffith's most masterful set pieces, but the film offers up many remarkable moments.

Jon said...

Hey Thanks Sam! Yes that Ice floe scene is brilliant and Gish is in top form. It's so hard to pick a best performance of hers.....she seemed to keep topping herself. I still can't figure out why The Wind doesn't have a proper release!