Best known for his controversial, mean-spirited and unbelievably influential masterpiece ‘˜The Birth Of A Nation,’ one thing that may be one of the most singular ways to describe to work, style and life of one D. W. Griffith is melodrama and his use of it. As bombastic an entity as his films and filmmaking style were, no single piece in Griffith’s storied filmography embodies this fact better than his brilliant melodrama, ‘˜Way Down East.’
Based on one of the most iconic plays of its time, from writer Lottie Blair Parker, the film follows the story of a young woman who is entrapped by a playboy, only to be left in the gutter after it is revealed that she will birth his child. In order to avoid being accosted for having a child without a father, she moves to a small town to start a new life, until Lennox visits the city, which begins to unravel her past.
Staring the ever beautiful Lillian Gish (also seen in ‘˜Nation’), the film is far more an actor’s piece than Griffith’s masterwork. Oddly liberal in its look at the female experience, the film’s content is far easier to swallow than Griffith’s most notable works, allowing for the fantastic, if cartoonish, silent performances from Gish ad co-star Richard Barthelmess (who plays her lover, introduced later in the film) to really breathe on the screen. As mentioned above, the film is steeped heavily in the world of staged melodramas, and these performances definitely feel like the elder relatives to something that would have been given to a Douglas Sirk film.
That said, Griffith’s filmmaking is very much at the forefront here. Featuring a great amount of visually arresting beats, the film is full of moments that prove Griffith to be unlike any filmmaker of his era. An ice floe-set chase sequence is easily the film’s cinematic crown jewel, as it is both inventive, and also perfectly fit into the film. The sequence doesn’t feel forced (it’s admittedly stolen, or inspired, by a sequence from adaptations during the era of ‘˜Uncle Tom’s Cabin’), but instead adds a whole different level and scope into an otherwise loud, but insular, piece of work.
‘˜Way Down East’ also has a shockingly moving emotional core. Be it the cliché but workable narrative of a woman starting anew, to a baptism sequence that will get the dust going in whatever room one views the film in, Griffith is not only able to get iconoclastic performances out of his leads, but turns them into something of a gem of big, verbose melodrama, both loud and ultimately emotionally moving.
Clocking in at two and a half hours, the piece is admittedly far too long. Whereas the battle sequences in ‘˜Birth’ made the film seem far breezier than it actually was (at least depending on what level of offended the narrative left you), the smaller scope of ‘˜East’ doesn’t fit the length. Silent cinema and melodrama are often strange bedfellows, as silent performances are often far more grandiose in their physicality than not, here it is very much that. However, that’s not necessarily an issue. The narrative itself is so cartoonish in its melodrama that it is ultimately a reward to see this piece be given performances solely using the physical instrument. Gish in particular, is able to emote so beautifully with her face and body language, that the film strives when she is on screen.
As far as a release goes, this sucker may not be three discs in size, but it’s still quite fantastic. With a brilliant transfer restored from a Museum Of Modern Art 35mm print, the film looks almost too good, featuring a really glossy sheen, and even nice, new title cards. The score pops here, as the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra absolutely kills the soundtrack, save for a really overused theme that by the time minute 149 rolls around, the only thing that will get it out of your head is a bullet between the eyes. Rounded out by a gallery of images from the original program book, a 1903 staging of the piece, and notes from the play’s writer, the release also includes a clip from the Edison Studio’s take on ‘˜Uncle’s Tom Cabin’ looking into that piece’s ice floe sequence.
Overall, this is yet another killer Blu-ray from Kino. A far different beast than ‘˜Birth’, the film shares a lot with Griffith’s entire body of work. Melodramatic to a fault, the film is cinematically stunning, and features some beautifully emotive performances from its two leads. A tough sit for roughly 150 minutes, the film may be too long, but it’s also almost too entertaining. A must own for Griffith admirers, fans of Sirk-esque melodrama, or just film in general.