Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Way Down East

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Way Down East

Around 1920, D.W. Griffith was at the top of his game. He had founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, giving them complete control over their own work. Along with Cecil B. DeMille he was perhaps the most celebrated and popular director of the era. And when he released Way Down East, an adaptation of a popular 19th century play about a poor girl who is tricked by a slick man and must endure all sorts of hardships for her naivete, the film became one of his biggest hits. But it's interesting to take a look at Griffith's career, attitude, and style from the perspective of this time. That Way Down East was a hit probably represents, in part, a nostalgia for the pre-World War I era in the dawning years of the Roaring Twenties. That ambivalence would remain throughout the Jazz Age because (images of flappers, bootleggers, and sultans of swat aside) the United States was still a largely rural and conservative country, suspicious of the massive social changes that were seizing the big cities. Nonetheless, many hit movies of the twenties capitalized on the sparkling, glistening sense of a new world, and mass audiences ate it up. Griffith was to fall increasingly behind the times in this regard.

Indeed, Griffith's relevance probably peaked immediately before America joined World War I. With The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he was the prophet of film form, leading the way adventurously into new territory. But increasingly, in 1919 and 1920, Griffith's work takes on a more aesthetically conservative tone. Gone are the ambitious structures and experiments in form, replaced by a simpler, if completely confident, style. I noted that True Heart Susie seemed even more basic than Broken Blossoms, which in turn was far more basic than the Griffith epics. Way Down East doesn't entirely continue that trend (the ice-floe climax is a quite stunning set piece) but emotionally, it continues to zero in rather than expand. And that is a good thing; despite some flaws, this is one of Griffith's most powerful works, in large part because its focus is so narrow and Griffith's immense compassion - redeemed from outright sentimentality by his sensitivity - imbues the film with a sense of elegiac grace.

Already, even in this hit film, we can feel Griffith's connections to the modern era, tenuous to begin with, slipping away. Again, the titles play an active role in the movie's sensibility. In fact, they are often the most experimental aspect of the film - Griffith likes to put up a title with part of the sentence and then add words to emphasize his point. For example, we start with: "He had one interest in life:" followed by "ladies," then a beat, "ladies", another beat, "LADIES!" all on the same card. One thing I've discovered during my survey of Griffith's career is the extent to which a silent movie's title cards can form an important part of the film's style. I'd always been inclined to think that "the fewer cards, the better" but Griffith shows that titles can be used creatively, and rhythmically as well (as Godard would in a more avant-garde fashion a half-century later).

Indeed, much of Way Down East moves with a quiet, mournful rhythm. The editing flows intuitively rather than logically: in one scene we cut from the sinking expression of the bachelor Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) to the legs of a dancing girl, not because he's looking at her but because somehow, on some poetic way, it emphasizes the moral emptiness of his life. Sanderson has seduced Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) following a sham marriage, impregnates her, and then abandons her. Later he will show up again, but it's the consequences of his actions, not his actual presence, which will continue to haunt Anna.

As Anna, Lillian Gish reaches new levels of ethereal effectiveness. When her mother asks her to go to her rich relatives looking for money, she is cloaked and sent off like Red Riding Hood, and the mythological connotations of this scene cue dreamlike connections. Gish has never looked so good as she does in this film. Usually somewhat waifish, here she summons an inner spiritual strength which just barely fuels her survival and endurance. Of course the film's view of womanhood and sexuality is draconian (though curiously, Griffith's opening titles posit monogamy as a modern development, one which men haven't quite matured into yet - this is consistent with the way he often posits conservative values as progressive ones). But Gish believes in the social consequences of her condition, and so we do too. The tired pain in her eyes, in her wounded half-smile, carry the picture.

Way Down East takes a rather elemental view of human nature. It's as if the efforts of the Klan and other social guardians in Griffith's past work have failed, and, from his point of view, primitive forces have once again taken hold of the human race (or, more accurately, as if civilization never really took root in the first place in the wilderness). Indeed, the movie takes elements of the modern or semi-modern world (particularly in those scenes set at the wealthy estate of Anna's cousins) and fuses them with primal fears of manipulation, persecution, and isolation, and the result feels like something out of a dream, what with the combination of recognition and buried anxiety.

As Anna is forced to stand alone in a cold, cruel world another notable element is the use of sacraments without official blessing. There's the marriage ritual of course, a hoax which Sanderson arranges so that Anna will go to bed with him, but also the baptism of Anna's doomed child, which she conducts on her own, by herself. The Birth of a Nation was about the possible downfall of society; Way Down East is about what a person does on their own when the protection of a social framework no longer exists. In this regard, it's similar to Broken Blossoms, except in that film the Chinese shopkeeper and the boxer's daughter find in each other, however briefly, solace from their loneliness. For much of Way Down East, Anna is all alone.

Eventually, she will be rescued - literally and metaphorically - by a farm boy named David Bartlett - played by Richard Barthelmess, who was also Gish's partner in Broken Blossoms. The rescue occurs when she wanders off into the winter woods, having been kicked out of her refuge by the elder Bartlett after he discovered she was once an unwed mother. She collapses on the ice near a river, and the ice breaks apart, drifting perilously close to a waterfall. David leaps across the ice floes, eventually rescuing Anna, but there is genuine suspense, given the scale and realism of this set piece.

The spectacle of the climax is impressive, but it is also more pure than previous Griffith spectacle. There are only two characters on display and the schema is literally black and white: the deep, dark blackness of the water rushing around the unconscious Anna and the pursuing David, and the blinding white of the perilously thin, crumbling ground upon which they stand. This scene is a perfect visual representation of the psychological condition Anna finds herself trapped in through most of the movie. Way Down East shows Griffith moving further and further away from his attachment to safety, security, and old-fashioned values as he pursues a tragic sense of life, a feeling that men (and women) are isolated from one another, left out in the cold, and the blinding snow.

It is interesting that as Griffith reaches the summit of his craft and his power within the industry, he presents a work which is about the fundamental pain of being alone and powerless.

Previous: True Heart Susie
Next: Orphans of the Storm

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.

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