“Many of Griffith’s features suffer from sententious moralizing, a sense of God speaking to the masses, and outright racism. But Way Down East highlights the greatness of Griffith without having to sit through the Sermon on the Mount or the Ride of The Klan. In Way Down East, Griffith’s psychotic nuttiness, for once, didn’t get in the way of a good film.” ( Paul Brenner )
This hoary melodrama was Griffith’s last big hit and, in fact, his biggest moneymaker since the epochal The Birth of a Nation, the film so much of a bonanza for Griffith that it kept his independent Mamaroneck studios running through the several lean years of box office failures that followed Way Down East. Griffith was criticized at the time for buying the rights to the play Way Down East, an old-fashioned barnburner from the 1890s firmly entrenched in eighteenth century Americana and Victorian ideals. The play was a clichéd, but very popular, warhorse and purchasing the film rights wasn’t cheap, costing twice as much as Griffith’s entire budget for The Birth of a Nation.
On the surface, the film is very much in the boo/hiss mode, detailing the plight of innocent country girl Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) who winds up in The Big City and becomes the punching bag victim of a fake marriage…
Today it may necessary to explain the title. “Down East” is an old phrase used to describe the farthest reaches of New England, particularly Maine, which at its tip is considerably east of Boston. The picture tells the story of Anna Moore, a poor and innocent country girl who goes to visit rich relatives in Boston and is there seduced by a wealthy womanizer, Lennox Sanderson. He has his way by tricking her with a false marriage. He asks her to keep their marriage secret for a while, but when she becomes pregnant, she asks to be recognized publicly as Mrs. Sanderson. He reveals his trickery; she goes off in solitude to have her baby, who dies soon after birth.
Anna is turned out by her censorious landlady, takes to the road, and eventually comes to quire Bartlett’s farm. She asks for work. The squire is at first reluctant to hire her because she is unknown and may be immoral; but, persuaded by his wife and son, he engages her. Anna proves her virtue by hard work, no surprise there, and the squire’s son David falls in love with her. When he declares himself, she tells him, without disclosing the reason, that nothing will ever be possible between them.
Sanderson’s country estate is nearby, as it happens, as it has to happen. He discovers that Anna is on the Bartlett place, and he urges her to move on. She tries to obey; he still has “male power” over her, evidently; but the Bartlett’s, who know nothing of the Sanderson matter, although they know him,persuade Anna to remain.
Some months later, at the end of winter, the secret of her past comes out. She is sent forth into the night by Bartlett, but not before she reveals that Sanderson,who is an honored guest at he squire’s table, is the guilty man. She wanders through a snowstorm, faints on the ice of the river just as it is breaking up, and is almost carried over a falls, but is rescued by David. Sanderson then offers to marry her authentically; she refuses. She is forgiven by the squire, because she was tricked into immorality, and in the end she marries David.
“And then there is Lillian Gish. Gish pulls out all the stops, her emotions running the gamut from Chaplinesque comedy (Griffith includes shots of Gish as a lone figure walking away from the camera down a dusty country road), to heart-tugging scenes sadness, to unbridled sequences of raw hysteria — witnessing her performance on the big screen is like watching a close relation wig out in front of you. Gish provides an abject lesson in screen acting and brings home the importance and effectiveness of seeing a film in a theater with a crowd. If you are not moved at the scene of Gish baptizing her dead baby, then you should check the obituaries of your local paper to see if you are listed.”
Many have noted the resemblance of this story to Hardy’s “Tess of the D’ubervilles”. Whether the authors of the original play knew “Tess”, is uncertain. But it may not have been necessary. The materials were not all that original, even for “Tess”. The difference with Hardy lay, among other reasons, in the fact that he was not interested in demonstrating justice. But Grffith knew Hardy’s work, at least in filmed form. In a 1917 interview he said ” Somehow, most of the stars who come to us from the regular stage lack sincerity… Mrs. Fiske, in Tess, was a notable exception. I know she drew from me the tribute of tears.” It may be that three years later he was remembering that “tribute” , and it helped him to decide to film this somewhat similar story.
There are a number of subplots involving other characters, and it is worth noting that, in the original typescript of the play, each character has a casting tag: ” Martha Perkins, Comedy Spinster; Hi Holler, Toby Comedy,” and so on. A Toby was a rustic clown who usually bested smarter city folks. All the characters are theatre stock, both in the sense of platitude and of availability, a method of show- making at least as old as the “commedia dell’ arte”.
Griffith engaged a playwright named Anthony Paul Kelly to do the screenplay and paid him ten thousand dollars, but, said Miss Gish, Griffith retained only one thing from the Kelly script: a bit of comic business with her gloves and elastic tapes that always got a laugh and so, to Griffith, was worth Kelly”s entire fee. The screenplay that was used, presumably Griffith’s own, is a model of the film adaptation of plays, in the sheerly technical sense. The skills of theatre are not essential to the screenplay, which had infinitely greater freedom…
Griffith begins his story chronologically, with Anna’s visit to Boston. This gives him several advantages. He can show the homes of the rich, thus visibly dramatizing the difference between sophisticated city life and country simplicity; he can give Anna the experience of betrayal and loss of her child “on stage”; and he can make her a differently seen character by the time she reaches the point of what was her first entrance in the play. When she first appears in Squire Bartlett’s farmyard in the play, a wanderer loking for work, we soon understand that she has some sort of secret; but at the same point in the film, we know her history: we are already her confidants and she is already a heroine. However, Griffith had the problem of establishing the Bartlett home and his male star before Anna reaches them- about half an hour into the story. He solved the problem with a device deliberately borrowed from Dickens. He inserts the title “Chapter Two… Bartlett Village” at an early point and gives us glimpses of the farm and David ( Richard Barthelmess ), relying on our assumption that if he’s not insane , he’s showing us these scenes for a purpose that will become clear. In fact, the lack of clarity is itself an enticement.
Griffith links the two strands before Anna and David meet with mystic prescience; for instance, when Sanderson drops the wedding ring during the mock marriage, David starts suddenly from sleep in his bedroom. Funny. There is no explanation of why David is in bed during the bright day of the mock marriage not so many miles away! This mystic device, sentimental as it is, simultaneously draws on three kinds of design protocol; that of the theatre, of the novel, and of the purely cinematic, fusing them into a new form that we can call the film.
The most obvious physical expansion is in the storm scenes at the end, which were filmed over a considerable period of time outdoors in Mamaroneck, New York, and in Vermont. In her autobiography, Gish tells of floating on a Vermont ice floes so long that her hair froze and her hand, trailing in the icy water, caught frostbite. The realism, on a thematic level, gave a much more engrossing way of sharing Anna’s purgation.
The remarkable fusion of new film elements and old theatre heritage is why “Way Down East” is still effective and why it is historically important. Further, the seminal influence of Griffith on other directors can be traced to this film as well as to usual sources like “The Birth of a Nation” . Sergei Eisenstein wrote at length about “Way Down East” in his essay “Dickens,Griffith, and the Film Today”. V.I. Pudovkin wrote that in the storm sequence the harmony between the blizzard and Anna’s feelings “is one of the most powerful achievements of the American genius.”
“This is, I realize, mainly subjective; but it suggests to me the clearest and deepest aspect of Griffith’s genius: he was a great primitive poet, a man capable, as only great and primitive artists can be, of intuitively perceiving and perfecting the tremendous magical images that underlie the memory and imagination of entire peoples. If he had achieved this only once, and only for me, I could not feel that he was what I believe he is; but he created many such images, and I suspect that many people besides me have recognized them, on that deepest level that are can draw on, reach, and serve.” ( James Agee )
The film is hardly transcendent artwork; it is a mechanical and saccharine story, with dialogue to match, full of blatant moral signals and heavy editorial comments. Still, the empirical fact, is despite all that is known about the film as it is watched, there is something compelling that grips the viewer. Substantially, this is because of the elements of creating a new cinematic language, all underwritten by the utter seriousness with which Griffith took the whole project.
And that seriousness is rooted, consciously or not, in the myth that underlies much of the melodrama; a moral redemption by bourgeois standards. It has been suggested that Anna is a secular saint, truly good, suffering for the sins and blindness of her fellows, finally undergoing an agony that reveals her purity. She is betrayed in her trust, she goes through travail, she labors in humility, she declines happiness because she is unworthy, refusing David’s love, and she shows that death holds no terror for her. At last she achieves heaven-on earth.
Scoff as we may, the possibility that there is earthly justice is the fundamental appeal of “Way Down East” , as it is in contemporary melodramas. Other older melodramas of stage and screen have died because their claptrap dates and strangles them; this film lives because, beneath and through its claptrap, it makes the possibility of justice poignant still.
And it lives too, because it is one of the most lucid instances of a tremendous historical change: the theatre culture of the last century being transformed into the theatre-film culture of the twentieth century. “Way Down East” feeds on the earlier culture and seeds the later one.