on February 28, 2001
In order to truly enjoy a film like Way Down East it is necessary to try to perform the seemingly impossible task of transporting yourself back into the 1920's. It is very easy to be critical of the moralizing, the melodrama and the attitudes. It is easy to find a film like this primitive in its techniques and its acting. But this is to miss the point and prevents a viewer from having a great silent film experience. This film carries the viewer along with the intensity of the emotion that is portrayed, especially by Lillian Gish in what is perhaps her best performance. Certain scenes have become archetypes, such as the `leave my house' scene. Some people may criticise the so-called comic relief scenes in this film. But it must be remembered that they are not intended to be funny in the sense of Keaton or Chaplin, for this would make the film fantasy rather than drama. They are supposed to be light relief, nothing more. The best thing about this DVD is that it shows the film complete. The colour tinting, which should always be reproduced if at all possible, is subtle and greatly adds to the mood of each scene. The print shows some damage in places which at times is quite serious, but does not detract from the enjoyment of the film. We must accept that sometimes it is not possible to restore a film to perfection. It is better to have a few damaged frames than to have them missing. The original music for a 1928 reissue is reproduced and sounds fine. Finally this DVD includes extensive sleeve notes which are informative and well written. Griffith, as far as I am concerned, will always remain one of the greatest of directors and Way Down East is one of his finest films.
In 1920, D.W. Griffith would go on to do a film adaptation of Lottie Blair Parker's play "Way Down East".
Despite the fact that two silent film adaptations were previously done (including a Henry Fonda talkie in 1935), Griffith paid $175,000 for the screen rights to the film and in those days, that was astronomical as it became the most expensive film for the filmmaker. But also one of his most successful films in the box office taking in over $4.5 million in 1920. The film was also known for using an early Technicolor process and for D.W. Griffith, wanting to attain realism, shot the winter scenes during the latter part of the film in an actual blizzard.
Back in 2008, "Way Down East" was included with the Kino International DVD box set "Griffith Masterworks 2' and featured the remastered version by the Museum of Modern Art. Now, "Way Down East" will be released on Blu-ray in Nov. 2011 courtesy of Kino Lorber.
"Way Down East" is presented in 1080p High Definition and the film is color tinted. The film is mastered in HD from the Museum of Modern Art's 35mm restoration with original color tints. It's important to note that the Museum of Modern Art did the best restoration possible with the original existing film elements. With that being said, the film features a lot more clarity and detail in HD compared to its 2008 DVD release.
While the film does have specks, scratches and even moments where we can see film damage, fortunately it's not too bad and doesn't take you away from the actual viewing experience.
With that being said, unfortunately this is not the complete version of the film. There are scenes that are probably lost forever and to help bridge those moments during the film, we are either given an intertitle explaining of what had taken place or a still shot of that scene. Fortunately, some of these missing scenes are not from the most critical moments of the film but one can only hope that similar to "Metropolis", the missing footage for "Way Down East" will one day be found.
But for the most part, this is the best looking version of the film to date. You can also see the icicles develop in Lilian Gish's eyelashes during the blizzard scene much more clearly. And also see the separation of the ice during the action sequence at the end much more clearly as well. If anything, you're getting better clarity than ever before!
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
I loved the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score for "Way Down East" that was used in the original DVD but to hear it in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, I'm quite impressed to hear the soundtrack come alive. There are certain soundtracks that you hear that stay in your head from time-to-time, especially when watching a film. For silent films, especially with the two Griffith films released on Blu-ray ("Way Down East" and "Birth of a Nation"), the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra have been wonderful! And it's one thing listening to it in stereo but to hear it in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, for me, makes a big difference.
It made various scenes come alive and for the most part, I'm very happy that Kino featured a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 musical soundtrack!
"Way Down East" comes with the following special features:
Film Clip: The ice floe sequence of the Edison Studio's "Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) - (:37) A short video clip of what inspired the ice floe sequence for "Way Down East".
Notes and exerts from the play by Lottie Blair Parker - A text based note on the original play.
Photos of William Brady's 1903 stage production - Using your remote, you can view images from William Brday's 1903 stage production.
Gallery of images from the original souvenir program book - Using your remote, you can view images from the original souvenir book for the film.
Notes on the Musical Score - A text based feature with Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra talking about how he came up with the score.
"Way Down East" comes with a slipcase cover.
"Way Down East" is perhaps one of my favorite love stories from the silent era because of its complexities and because the actors took part in one of the riskiest action sequences to be showcased in a romantic drama.
First, lets talk about the characters. What "Way Down East" manages to accomplish with absolute efficacy is its character development. Griffith slow develops the characters over the course of the film. While certain characters such as the Constable, Hi Holler and Seth Holcomb were featured primarily for laughs and don't really add so much to the film (which I read was added because people would expect those characters from the play to be in the film), from the emotional Anna Moore, the stern Squire Bartlett, the womanizing Lennox Sanderson and the charming David Bartlett, "Way Down East" showcases what most people expect from a dramatic romance story...complexities.
But in this case, complexity is taken to a grand level when Anna Moore is deceived by a womanizer and is forced to raise a baby that dies not long after she gives birth to it. I don't know how people reacted to that scene back then but nevertheless, one can easily be sympathetic to the country girl Anna Moore
Once again, character development was slow but Griffith did a magnificent job in establishing those characters.
But it's the finale that will forever shock viewers to "Way Down East". Even in 2011, I can't imagine how the block of ice and those scenes were created for the film. Last time I watched a silent film that revolved around the use of a waterfall, it was a Buster Keaton film in which he was injured.
But this time, the waterfall looked dangerous and while Hollywood does all it can to protect it's actors and crew in today's working climate in fear of lawsuits, back then, to capture realism such as a snow blizzard, you shoot during a snow blizzard.
For "Way Down East", Griffith and crew waited for a real blizzard in order to film the latter scenes. When you see Lillian Gish walking through the blizzard and seeing the frozen ice on her face, that is not fake snow, that is all real! And that is one of the benefits of Blu-ray is to see the amazing clarity of icicles developing around her eyelashes. Supposedly, Lilian Gish who had to drag her arm in the icy water during the ice floe sequence suffered an injury that would bother that arm for years and decades to come. Granted, Lilian Gish had a body double who did the ice floe sequences but nevertheless, it goes to show how far Griffith wanted to capture realism.
In fact, even D.W. Griffith was injured on set (according to Robert K. Keppler, "Silent Films 1877-1996'). During the filming of the ice floe sequence, in order to break apart the ice, the crew had to use dynamite. But in process, one the blast happened to quickly and Griffith was caught in the blast. Not sure of how badly he was injured, but it was bad to the point that that Elmer Clifton (the stunt double for the character of Anna in the film), would have to direct the remainder of the ice floe sequence.
But the ice floe sequence for this film is what will be remembered most for "Way Down East". It is one of the most dangerous scenes I have seen ever shot on film and as we have seen many complex, death defying stunts accomplished by Buster Keaton on his feature films, this film was rather ambitious and dangerous. With today's CG films to recreate danger, to think about the risk that cast and crew were put in, one again, its how far filmmakers and talent would go in order to create a believable scene.
And as for D.W. Griffith, as a filmmaker who is known for having the grandest of moments in his film, may it be the war scenes of "Birth of a Nation" or the amazing, towering sets designed for "Intolerance", "Way Down East" will be remembered as a romantic drama with one of the most dangerous action sequences of all time.
As for the Blu-ray release of "Way Down East", most silent film fans own the 2008 DVD release or the "Griffith Masterworks 2' DVD box set. I own both sets and they are fantastic! But why upgrade to the Blu-ray version? Well, for "Way Down East", it's primarily clarity and lossless audio. There are no addition special features or shorts included with this release, it's pretty much upgraded for HD! And for some, that may mean a lot!
I can tell you right now, the clarity to see those close-up scenes of Lilian Gish walking through an actual blizzard, you can see the detail much clearly. And for me, hearing the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also another plus because this is a fantastic score for the film!
There is something about listening to this score on DTS-HD MA 5.1 that makes the film come alive more than ever compared to the original stereo 2.0 soundtrack of the 2008 DVD. But to listen to this beautiful soundtrack in its HD uncompressed glory is by owning a receiver and having the speaker setup in order to listen to lossless. So far, with the release of "Way Down East" and "Birth of a Nation", listening to the scores in HD lossless makes a big difference (this is the same sentiment that I have with Kino's prior releases of "Metropolis" and the Buster Keaton films on Blu-ray).
So, if you have the equipment to watch and listen in HD, upgrading from DVD to Blu-ray for "Way Down East" is worth it! Otherwise, if you don't have the equipment, then the very awesome 2008 DVD is good enough.
As for special features, I was hoping to see newer special features added to "Way Down East". In the past Blu-ray releases, Kino Lorber has been very generous by giving us additional featurettes but in this case, they stayed with the original text-based special features and the usual image gallery.
Overall, "Way Down East" is a wonderful romantic drama capturing the complexities of love and heartbreak and in D.W. Griffith fashion, ending with one of the most grandest and dangerous action scenes captured on camera. Featuring a Blu-ray release that trumps the 2008 DVD release in clarity and detail but also its vibrant and fantastic lossless music soundtrack, "Way Down East" is highly recommended, worth owning and worth the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray!
on January 31, 2000
Way Down East, although technically imperfect by the over-exacting standards of modern-day audiences (who are used to expensive computer-generated special effects which rarely serve to truly augment a film and often serve as a cover for woefully deficient plots), is nothing short of a masterpiece. As usual, Lillian Gish's acting is superb, and the ice floe sequence near the end is truly riveting even with a couple of continuity problems. Richard Barthelmess shines through as David Bartlett, turning in another fine performance. Way Down East is another of Griffith's masterpieces, and this release features the full-length version mastered at the correct film speed, complete with original tints, and the original score, recorded on Vitaphone discs for the film's 1930 reissue, making for an outstanding evening's entertainment. Excellent!
on December 2, 1999
This and Broken Blossoms are the defining moments in Lillian Gish's career. Watch and you'll be hooked. I pretty much bestow all the same accolades as everybody else about this film. Griffith was not quite a master of slapstick, but the moments here are not much different from other comedies at the time. The key of course is Gish's mesmerizing performance and a simple plot (this is 1920 of course). What a treat it is to own this movie and other silents on DVD. The picture quality is virtually perfect. The music score is a recording of an original score. It's scratchy but authentic. My only gripe with this edition is the title cards. The letters look like they came from the Sunday comics. One small quibble in an otherwise remarkable DVD.
on August 27, 1999
First, let's get one thing clear: this is old-fashioned melodrama, pure and simple. The situations have been used before ("Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" seem two prominent sources) and real emotion is eschewed by most of the actors in favor of Delsartian posing. The film is conventional in plot and design. However, for some reason I find myself replaying scenes from this film in my head, and moments come back me at odd times. The ice flow scene is a deserved classic -- you feel genuine concern, especially knowing that none of it is high-tech computer wizardry: this is the real thing. Griffith manages some other affecting scenes (the baptism comes to mind) and much of the movie is shot on location, with some lovely scenes of pastoral America. The best aspect of the film, however, is the acting of Lillian Gish. Where other characters resort to mugging, her expressive face and large doe eyes register every emotion truthfully and beautifully. Griffith exploits her talent in as many close-ups as he can get of her. She has mastered the art of silent film acting, and this film is a textbook example by one of the greatest stars of the era. Griffith's real failing in this picture comes in the truly poor comedy scenes. They are irritating, amateurish, and decidedly unfunny. This edition is beautifully done, with the original colored tints used. This is a classic document of an art form and a type of story-telling that has been lost to us.
on April 22, 2007
The world had already begun to lose some of its innocence after the Great War when film pioneer D.W. Griffith took this long and romantic look at the mores which would eventually destroy his own career, outdating the type of stories he told. "Way Down East" is, like many of Griffith's films with Gish (Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, etc.), a story of love's virtue overcoming circumstance. Though Lottie Blair Parker's play was somewhat dated even as Griffith began filming this, our nation's innocence, and that of the entire world, was still fresh in the minds of many, making this early silent one of his greatest and most enduring masterpieces.
Baby-faced Lilian Gish portrays Anna, sent from her poor home to the big city by her mother in an effort to procure financial help from rich relatives. It is there that she will meet playboy Leroy Sanderson, however, and the sweetly naive Anna will be misled into a mock marriage so that he may take what is most precious to her. When she is found to be with child, Sanderson reveals the ruse and offers her money to go away and hide her tender secret. Anna refuses, humiliated and shamed, and returns home to her mother, who shortly dies. It is quite moving as Gish's Anna hides her baby in shame, baptizing it in secret herself, so that no one knows. It is also moving when Anna holds her sick baby in her arms, unaware that it no longer resides with her.
Wandering and trying to find a place for herself, she is taken in by the rigid Squire, who is ignorant of her past. It is on the farm that she will prove her worth and unknowingly win the love of young David (Richard Barthelmess). Gish is beautiful with her hair down, by the river, when David begins to speak of what is in his heart. But Anna cannot let him love her, no matter how she may ache to, because of her hidden and shameful past. Griffith contrasts their plight with the more charming and awkward courtship of a nerdy professor and Kate, creating greater empathy for Anna and David.
Though this somewhat overlong film doesn't reach the sophistication of silent films made during the late 1920's just before the advent of sound, it can still be both moving and exciting. Griffith took forever to film this one, waiting on the New England seasons to change, giving it a look of realism for the time in which it is set. Once gossip reaches the unforgiving Squire, the scene is set for one of the most exciting moments in motion pictures, filmed with Barthelmess and Gish themselves, Griffith and cinematographer Billy Blitzer capturing it all on film.
Cast out into a blizzard, Anna is pursued by David, desperate to find her and love her. Anna finds her way in the blizzard to the ice flows of the river, and collapses on a block of frozen water heading swiftly for the falls. Knowing Gish nearly froze to death filming this scene for Griffith, and that she and Barthelmess were truly in danger, keeps viewers on the edge of their seats as Anna drifts to the brink and David jumps from glacier to glacier, trying to get to her in time. The outcome and the aftermath turn this simple story into one of the great romances of the silver screen, or in this case, the nitrate screen.
Those who know of this film will probably opt for the beautifully restored Blackhawk version, which contains the original score redone. Those wanting to view it only as a curio might opt for the much less expensive Alpha version, which contains classical music as the score rather than the original. Gish's lovely performance and an exciting ending make this a must see for those who love silent films. While it is dated today, it is a reminder that innocence lost is never regained.....
on April 11, 1999
I had the pleasure of watching Way Down East for the first time a week ago and it has stayed with me since. I'm quite a fan of Griffith's earlier works, including in my opinion his finest film ever, Broken Blossoms. Lillian Gish (star of Way Down East and Broken Blossoms) is magnificent with her girl-like charm and portrays a character who is complex and simplistic alike. For anyone who enjoys the pre-Classical Hollywood Cinema silent feature, I highly recommend this film.
on March 27, 2007
David Wark Griffith is honoured with the title of "the Father of Film" because he was one of the prominent pioneers of early filmmaking, not only developing the narrative or storytelling style of film as we know it today, but between 1908 and 1913 alone he directed nearly 500 short films. He was continually honing his craft, and was always on the cutting edge of new and creative ideas in making and directing films, and "Way Down East" is just one of the very entertaining films he directed in his maturing days in the 1920s. While many of his short films (such as for Biograph) were serious, solemn and often contained an historical or ethical lesson, Griffith also directed other styles of film such as this one, which has a perfect balance of serious drama and light-hearted comedy, as well as the standard build-up to a nail-biting climax which he had perfected in earlier years already. The moral theme of "Way Down East", as the introductory intertitles tell us, is that women are the ones who suffer because society is more accepting of wayward men than women, and as a case in point, we are told the story about an innocent country girl called Anna who is deceived and tricked into a mock marriage by a rich and spoilt playboy who only wanted a casual fling, and abandons her when the relationship results in a pregnancy. Rather than telling a strict moralistic story, however, Griffith introduces various colourful characters and moments of surprising humour throughout the story. Nevertheless, the viewer is drawn into the drama of Anna's plight as she struggles to rebuild her life after this betrayal and the death of her baby, and then as she finds new love but fears she could never be another man's wife due to her past. Griffith balances plenty of such melodrama, emotional tension and suspense, as well as humour and fine attention to the characters and other little details in "Way Down East", as he once again sets the standard for the Hollywood Classic for decades to come. And there could hardly be a more suitable actress to play Anna than Lillian Gish, whose appearance and personality in many Griffith films represented innocence, purity and a dainty charm which has not lost its appeal even in today's world. Popular actor Richard Barthelmess is also perfectly cast as the good and wholesome country boy who loves Anna and comes to her rescue in the thrilling climax. The picture quality is not quite as clear as some prints of other silent films, but the on-going drama and action easily detract from this. Interestingly, the musical score on this DVD to this 1920 film is an original 1928 `low-fi mono' recording made to suit the film, which adds appropriate atmosphere to the period. There are also very good, extensive notes with pictures in this DVD by Image Entertainment, and it is surely an important addition to a serious film collection as well as one of the varied milestones in Griffith's directing career.
on June 2, 2006
An impoverished young country girl (Lillian Gish) travels to the big city of Boston to beg of her wealthy relatives financial aid for herself and her elderly mother. With the brim of her country hat wide enough to hold her halo the lovely heroine is mocked behind her back, lusted after by the rascal wastrel Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman - `Her delicate beauty whips Lennox to jaded appetite' reads one of the inter-title cards), used, abused and finally discarded.
WAY DOWN EAST is a terrific movie, directed by D.W. Griffith in 1920. It's a moral story depicting innocence betrayed and urging monogamous fidelity - men, in particular Lennox Sanderson, are the sinners and Lillian Gish is the sinned upon. It's a romance firmly grounded in a strict moral code that happens to contain one of the classic endings in screen history when Griffith has Gish collapse on an ice floe heading to a treacherous cataract.
There's a fake wedding and a child born, gossips to ignite and a scandal that Gish spends most of the movie trying to keep secret. That scandal doesn't have the sharp edge today it had in 1920, but that didn't really date the movie for me. There's a timeless quality to a story of innocence betrayed, and a resultant secret that must be guarded. Gish is so expressive, and Griffith uses close-ups so masterfully, that you'll be caught up despite yourself. What is a little moldy, however, is the cut-aways to the small town Gish ultimately flees to. When the melodrama gets too heavy Griffith relieves the tension with a trip to the sticks and a look at the humorous bumpkins who reside there. It's in this small town we meet the Callow Youth, played with square-jawed tenacity by Richard Barthelmess - the good boy who Gish should have loved before the city slicker ruined her. It will be Barthelmess who will chase after the floe-borne Gish in the final, exciting act of the movie.
I watched the Image version of WAY DOWN EAST and would warn, sight unseen, against any other version. Because it's unavailable for sale I had to rent the Image Ent. version. I don't know who supplied the score, but they did a very good job. For instance, when Lennox and Gish's character are `wed' we get a few minor-key bars of "The Wedding March." In other words, music follows actions, characters are given themes, etc. Most dvd producers who supply public domain movies slap on any music, whether it fits or not. The print quality isn't immaculate - there are some stretches where we see cracked, blistered, and scratched images, but for the most part the picture is good enough not to be a distraction.
on April 30, 2009
I would give the movie five stars - it is one of my favorite silent films - but the low rating is for the Alpha DVD. It is of a bad print, very dark and scratchy. But the worst is the dreary, monotonous organ score - absolutely horrible! As a longtime fan of silent films, I believe firmly that a quality musical score is essential to our enjoyment, particularly of a lengthy drama such as this one. Choose either the Kino or the Image DVD.