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Monday, September 21, 2009

WAY DOWN EAST (1920)


It’s the mother-of-all melodramas, and wiseguys have been scoffing at its old-fashioned ways & means since before it was released. Even its star, Lillian Gish, ‘What? That ol’ thing?’ But D. W. Griffith pulled it off with a combination of showmanship (particularly in the use of real & very dangerous locations); film technique (especially in the clear editing of parallel storylines); and his complete belief in seemingly inert material. Gish is just about perfect as the naive girl who’s tricked into a mock marriage and then loses her newborn child. Friendless & wandering, she stumbles into a new life at a country estate (with a handsome son, natch) when her old nemesis shows up. So close to redemption, so close to finding love, so close to a chance at happiness! And then, the man who got her into all this trouble turns out to be the well-liked gentleman neighbor. Cue the Ice Storm! As the farmer’s son who quickly falls in love with Gish, young Richard Barthelmess is disarmingly open-hearted & intimate which brings out a new sensuous note from Gish while Lowell Sherman makes his seducer villain almost shockingly nonchalant. There’s an awful lot of rural comedy in the supporting roles, far too much in the case of Martha, the town gossip, but it gets a surprising amount of laughs (there’s a hilarious Post Office porch tableaux), and it works as mortar to help shore up the melodramatic bricks. The last three reels play out as a thrilling series of climaxes, including the legendary/gasp-worthy rescue on the ice floes sequence. The superb restoration on KINO from the MoMA archives is tinted too darkly, but it’s by far the most complete edition since . . . well, since 1920, and the varying print quality (from very good to pretty rough) makes for a nice little history lesson in film preservation.

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