Sunday, August 5, 2012

Jason watches WAY DOWN EAST (1920) at the Stanford Theatre

Two of the greatest of the greats of silent film teamed up in this (and many other films)--Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith. And they made an excellent, epic broad and effective melodrama with equally broad comedy. Lillian plays Anna Moore, a naive country girl who is tricked by a rich playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman.) He stages a fake wedding, while she just thinks they're getting married in secret. Then he has his way with her and leaves her pregnant, alone, and humiliated. The baby dies, which is bad enough, but due to her past she has to live in secret and never marry another man (okay, this is1920, you have to look at it from 1920 standards.) She gets work at a simple country farm run by a hard, moral Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) and his kindly wife (Kate Bruce.) They also have a very handsome son David (Richard Bartelmass,) which would be nice if she were marriageable. Oh, and Sanderson happens to live right across the street, making everything awkward.

A romance between the Squire's niece Kate (the lovely Mary Hay) and a visiting professor studying butterflies (Creighton Hale) provides comic relief. And the busybody maid who finds out about Anna's past provides the tragedy, culminating in a famous scene with Lillian lying, freezing on an ice floe.

By the way, the ice floe scene actually left Lillian with lifelong nerve damage in her hand. And yet, she claimed this wasn't the most difficult movie to film. That was THE WIND (1928)--coincidentally playing on August 17th at the Stanford.

Dennis James rocked the mighty Wurlitzer organ with the original 1920 score, and it was fantastic. The film was actually a reconstruction of the original 1920 premiere. A few scenes were missing and replaced with text and production stills illustrating what was supposed to be on screen. Interestingly enough, Griffith was famous for going back and re-editing his movies long after their initial release (even after donating them to the Museum of Modern Art.) So this reconstruction was guided by the original score--it had all the information on the order and length of every scene. It's an interesting thing to think about the next time you get upset that George Lucas went off and changed STAR WARS again.

Running Time: 145 minutes (estimated, because I forgot to set my stopwatch. And, in fact, I'm pretty sure this is an underestimate.)
My Total Minutes: 196,154

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