WAY DOWN EAST (1920) is brimming with cinematic imagination and
theatrical energy. It's the classic example of melodrama, the dominant
form of American theater in the 19th century and a form that still
permeates to some degree just about every commercial movie.
EAST isn't just a throwback to rural melodrama at a time when O'Neill
and Stravinsky and others were altering the arts. It's a celebration
of the pluralist nature of American movies, which have always combined
new ideas and ways of expression with existing traditions even
The public never sheds _all_ its old affinities for melodrama
(monochrome characters, dramatized physical danger, earthly justice).
To me, Griffith is great because he so overwhelmingly (although not
consistently) satisfies your hunger for heroines in distress and
heroes who arrive in the nick of time despite the odds, and does so
with a magisterial panache that demonstrates how buoyant and exciting
the young art form could be.
Griffith used actors for each role who were experienced in theater
stock, in that "line of business" funny old spinster, naive waif,
"true" upright hero, toby (the rustic clown who bested city dwellers),
etc. All the roles in WAY DOWN EAST form a museum of 19th century
theater routines, but the director encourages most of them to cast a
spell, as if they were center stage (the equivalent of an early
closeup). He tells his story chronologically, using devices from
Dickens ("Chapter Two ... Bartlett Village") at times that may not
seem clear right away but in retrospect dawn on us for their aptness
The director fuses design protocol of the theater, the novel, and the
purely cinematic, generating a sort of mystic prescience. When
Sanderson drops the wedding during the mock marriage, David starts
suddenly from sleep in his bedroom, miles away. Another example: When
Sanderson is introduced, there's a quick succession of cuts closeups
and medium shots so that his first appearance sparkles prismatically,
even dangerously. When he and Anna first meet, we see him over her
shoulder before we see them together; Griffith uses cinema's power to
shift the audience and thus emphasize the dread feeling of encounter.
Griffith and Lillian Gish create a ballet of her body's movement. If
there were no titles of any kind, you could "read" her body: the
butterfly dance around the parlor while she waits for her "husband,"
the crushed figure who trudges down the road after the death of her
baby, etc. Gish did her best acting for Griffith in a bunch of his
feature-length movies, and her astonishingly great performances
closely reflected his hand and his direction.
WAY DOWN EAST lives, holding you in its grip, because it is one of the
most lucid instances of a tremendous historical change: the theater
culture transforming into the theater-film culture. It's a landmark.