Seen January 25, 2009: Way Down East directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Lilian Gish, Lowell Sherman, and Richard Barthelmess.
If you’re a fan of old silent films, you’ve probably either seen this one or have it high on your want-to-see list. I am such a fan. Most of my silent movie watching these days is courtesy of TCM, which features a semi-regular Silent Sunday Night program as well as a smattering of silents throughout the normal schedule, or on DVD. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a good thing. These days, especially if you have a decent sound and video system, there’s often no clear advantage to watching a movie in a theater or in your home. Or, said differently, there are plusses and minuses for each – I think it’s high time we disabused ourselves of the notion that the theatrical experience is always better.
I’m sure you know that I’m leading up to a “but” – so here it is. But seeing a good quality silent film with live original music in a theater full of fans is a real treat. I saw this one at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, NH, as part of their monthly Sunday Silent Classics series. Live original music is composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is greatly responsible for the series. It was a long movie, but the audience was with it all the way: hissing the bad guy and cheering for the good people.
Way Down East is a movie based on a play; it purports to be a morality tale, but it’s really just a pot-burner of a story involving rich and poor relations, evil men, good folk, fallen women, comic foils, and good old action sequences. The movie opens with a some words about how mankind is gradually progressing from a polygamous animal towards the ideal of one man for one woman, and telling us that this story will show how the order of monogamy must come to pass in order to spare women the kind of fate depicted in it. The setup has a poor family – mother and grown daughter – failing to make ends meet. The daughter Anna (played by Lillian Gish) travels to Boston to beg assistance from rich relations. She is soon wooed by a lecherous cad of a playboy – Lennox Sanderson (played by Lowell Sherman) – who tricks her into a sham marriage; she’s pregnant and back home with her mother before she learns that the marriage is fake. The story goes from there, punctuated with purple-prosed title cards and filled with archetypical characters: judgemental types, forgiving types, helpful and comic types, heroes and villains.
The IMDB lists several running lengths for this film, anywhere from 107 to 165 minutes. This one was apparently the 145 minute version which, I gather, is the de facto issue. Even at this length you can see where there have been some cuts. There is, for example, a matter of a robbery at a small-town post office that was reduced to a couple of off-hand mentions (probably for the better). The film quality was not perfect, but fairly decent, with some parts better than others. The original film featured color tinting and this print did as well, although I was at a loss to figure out what the tinting implied. Just as I thought I figured out when and why the tinting was used, each theory was busted.
Spoiler here – skip this paragraph if you care about such things. This movie is mostly famous for its ice floe sequence near the ending (filmed in and around White River Junction, VT, and perhaps in parts of NH). Lillian Gish was so dedicated to this performance that she sustained an injury from dangling her hand in the frigid water, an injury that lasted the rest of her long life. Some notes on the web suggest that the ice floe sequence was not in the original story, but was added by Griffith for the movie. If so, it was plugged into the movie pretty well: while watching it I felt that it presented an analog to what happened to Anna’s baby earlier in the film (particularly the focus on the cold hand, and the baptism and rebirth of the soul). Rapsis’ music really shone during this sequence, building up an excitement that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.
A thoroughly enjoyable film, and well worth the wait (for me) to have seen it presented in this way. Those who aren’t comfortable with or adapted to seeing silent films might be a bit put off by the style (and even for an old silent film, the style is a bit strident) – but don’t let that stop you.