A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920)

If Griffith's sententious title cards (e.g.,"Not by laws -- our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws -- but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy") don't have some viewers reaching for the remote, then the cornpone comic antics of his stereotypical rustics, such as the toothless constable (George Neville) and the hayseed Hi Holler (Edgar Nelson), certainly will. But stick with it to witness one of the great action sequences on film, Anna (Lillian Gish) adrift on the ice floe, as well as one of Gish's greatest moments as an actress, when she baptizes her dying baby. Yes, it's all hokum -- what do you expect from a melodrama almost a century old? But it's magnificent, enduring hokum, done brilliantly by a director who now seems more than just a pioneer but an artist of stature. And yes, that stature is tarnished by the man's racism in The Birth of a Nation (1915), just as Wagner's operas are tarnished by the anti-Semitism that many see lurking beneath their surface. But we don't have to endorse our artists to appreciate them, and the great efficiency with which Griffith tells a story and keeps us on the edge of our seats -- even when we know that his sentimentality is antique and outworn -- is something to be appreciated. Credit, too, must go to Billy Bitzer and the other cinematographers (Paul H. Allen, Charles Downs, and Hendrik Sartov) who gave us images that seem well beyond the years in which they were filmed. I do admit to some surprise that there are so many scenes in Way Down East that Griffith is content to film as if they were happening on a proscenium stage when one of his great contributions to the art of cinema is providing a fluidity and intimacy that are unavailable in the theater. Perhaps he was trying to do justice to his set designers, Clifford Pember and Charles O. Seessel, whose work is quite spectacular. But nothing before or since has quite equaled the ice floe sequence.