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Way Down East (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

November 29, 2011 by  



From filmmaker D.W. Griffith comes “Way Down East”, 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!

Images courtesy of © 2011 Kino Lorber, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Way Down East

FILM RELEASE: 1920

DURATION: 149 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Color-Tinted, 1:33:1, 1080p High Definition, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Stereo 2.0

COMPANY: Kino Classics/Kino Lorber

RATED: Not Rated

Release Date: November 22, 2011

Directed by D.W. Griffith

Based on the play “Way Down East” by Joseph R. Grimer and Wm. A. Brady and “Annie Laurie” by Lottie Blair Parker

Scenario by Anthony Paul Kelly

Produced by D.W. Griffith

Music by Louis Silvers

Starring:

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore

Richard Barthelmess as David Bartlett

Lowell Sherman as Lennox Sanderson

Burr McIntosh as Squire Bartlett

Kate Bruce as Mother Bartlett

Mary Hay as Kate (the Squire’s Niece)

Creighton Hale as the Professor

Emily Fitzroy as Maria Poole

Porter Strong as Seth Holcomb

George Neville as the Constable

Edgar Nelson as Hi Holler

D.W. Griffith’s penchant for Victorian melodrama reached its height of expression in WAY DOWN EAST. First performed in 1898, Lottie Blair Parker’s play was one of the most successful stageworks ever written, a theatrical chestnut, heavy with sentiment, that cried out for the touch of the master. Griffith captured the appeal of Parker’s original, while embossing it with devices borrowed from other popular melodramas, such as the climactic chase across an ice floe (inspired by stage adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

Lillian Gish stars as a small-town girl who is seduced, impregnated, and cast aside by Lennox Sanderson, a wealthy playboy (Lowell Sherman). To escape the shame of having a fatherless child, Anna changes her name and starts a new life in a small farming community, where she meets David, an icon of male virtue and decency (Richard Barthelmess). Their delicate happiness is threatened when Lennox arrives in town, and word of Anna’s unsavory past begins to spread.

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 a film that stars D.W. Griffith’s muse Lillian Gish as Anna Moore, a poor country girl who lives with her mother (played by Mrs. David Landau).  Times are tough and the two consider visiting New England to ask for financial help from their wealthy relatives, the Tremont family.  Anna decides to visit the relatives and ask and when she arrives, it’s during a time when the family is having a bridge tournament with other friends in high society.

Embarrassed by the clothes that Anna is wearing, her aunt keeps her hidden in one of the guest rooms.

Meanwhile, one of the men at the party, Lennox Sanderson (played by Lowell Sherman) is a man only concerned about bedding women and lives off his father’s wealth.   When he sees Anna, he immediately has his eyes set on her.  And thinking that she is rich, comes up with an idea to get close to her and marry her.

Eventually Lennox has it all planned out.  Capture Anna’s affections and then have his friends pretend to be a priest and arrange a sham wedding.  For Anna, she truly loves Lennox and also feels that because he is wealthy, she and her mother would not have to worry again.

So, as Anna and Lennox are married (a sham wedding), Lennox makes her promise that no one can ever know about their marriage and Anna agrees. And because they are married, they can now consummate their relationship.  Afterward, as Anna needs to go back home to visit her mother, Lennox tells her that he will see her in two days but also reminding her that no one can know about their marriage.

Anna goes back home to tell her mother the good news, that they need not worry about financial matters anymore.  And two days later, when Lennox arrives…he finds out that she is poor and confesses to her that their wedding was all a lie.  And that his father would never let him marry a girl like her or else he will be cut off from the family’s money and then Lennox leaves her.

Devastated by the news, she faints and is found by her mother.  Over nine months later, the news has proved to be terrible for the family as Anna’s mother passes away, she can no longer live in the house where she lived and we also learn that she is a single mother and is trying to take care of a newborn, which she names Trust Lennox and goes by the name of Mrs. Lennox.

She is taken in by Maria Poole (played by Emily Fitzroy), a landlady, who allows her to stay in one of her rooms but she is concerned of why her husband is not there.  She tells him he is away but Maria suspects that maybe she is lying. Maria reminds her that if she is a single mother, she can not stay with her.  Meanwhile, she contacts a doctor to check on her baby because he seems ill.  The doctor visits and tells her to give him drops of medicine and mix with water to give to the baby.

As Anna tries to be a good mother and take care of the baby, the baby is not responsive and when the doctor arrives, he tells her that the baby is dead.  Because the husband has not come, Maria doesn’t believe she is married and kicks Anna out of her room.

Now, Anna has no choice but to go find a job.  She wanders into a farming area of Squire Bartlett (played by Burr McIntosh). The Bartlett’s are a religious family which include Mother Bartlett (played by Kate Bruce) and their son David Bartlett (played by Richard Barthelmess).

At first the Squire doesn’t want to hire Anna because farming is a tough job and also, he doesn’t know what kind of person she is and for all he knows, she can be a floozy but the mother tells him a quote from the bible and to not judge her.  So, the squire hires Anna and gives her a job.

Things go very well for Anna and the family feel comfortable with Anna working there.  Especially David, a man who has dreams of marrying a virginal woman in white.  He wonders if that woman could be Anna as he has fallen for her.

But to complicate matters, Kate, the squire’s niece (played by Mary Hay) arrives and since they were children, David and Kate were to be married when they got older.  But David doesn’t like Kate, he likes Anna.  And also the Professor (played by Creighton Hale) is in love with Kate.

As Anna tries to not get involved with family business and focus on her work, she is shocked when Lennox Sanderson visits the Bartlett farm.  Lennox is shocked to see Anna working there and tells her that he lives across the way from the Bartlett ranch and that he is going for Kate.  He doesn’t want Anna ruining his plans and wants her to quit her job and leave.

Shocked and saddened that Lennox has reappeared in her life, she considers quitting but will let the man who she once loved, control her life?

VIDEO:

“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!

SPECIAL FEATURES

“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.

EXTRAS:

“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!

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