Wednesday, November 11, 2015

MOOM PITCHER REVIEW! WAY DOWN EAST starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, directed by D.W. Griffith (1920)

OK, so Griffith was still doing fine at this time. I'll certainly agree to that. However, maybe it was a tad noticeable to some that after the original Griffith players had dispersed and the World War I years gave birth to the twenties it wasn't the quite the same moom pitcher industry that it used to be. After '22's ORPHANS OF THE STORM the Gish sisters were gone, and although Griffith continued making some rather potent product as the twenties dragged on you could tell that he was being surpassed by the same people that he helped create in the first place.

I guess the only reason he was allowed to stick around so long was because he was still a name just like Pickford, Chaplin and the rest of the United Artists types who had seen better days, and as we all know stuck up intellectuals hadda go see something at the mooms that appealed to their so above-it-all artsy tastes. And hey, if Chaplin wasn't doing his worn out schtick for the few remaining fans of his (tho Pickford still played the overgrown kid to maximum if kinda nauseating effect in William Beaudine's SPARROWS) then there was no choice other'n Griffith, right?

WAY DOWN EAST is a moom that seems custom-made for the melodramatic organ-pumping living room stereoscope-browsing Griffith regulars.Y'know, the kinda backwoods rural folk who you still see at the smaller supermarkets albeit in culturally-beaten form. But like in many of Griffith's early one-reel Biographs these same folks are surely the object of his ire which I'll bet rubbed more'n a few button-downs (among 'em the Pennsylvania Board of Censors) the wrong way when they settled in for this particular piece of cinematic excursion!

Longtime Griffith fave Lillian Gish stars as the sweet yet dumboid country gal Anna who becomes the apple of local well-connected lothario Lennox Sanderson's lascivious eyeball. Looking for a nice li'l quickie, Lennox arranges for a fake marriage with Anna (how these gals ever fell for that old scam I do not know!) before splitting when the gal becomes big with bastard. Of course the li'l illegit one conveniently croaks in one of the best infant dying scenes ever staged (I wonder how they trained the kid to fake death in such a realistic fashion...that ain't no overwrought Stanislavsky Method he was usin'!) but that don't keep Anna from getting kicked outta her digs because of her evil status.

Soon the duped one is out and about looking for work, and finds it as a maid for a stiff 'n upper lipped man who runs a local farm. Soon the "squire"'s son (played by new Griffith fave Richard Barthelmess) falls head over gosh-it-all heels for Anna, but she won't give him the time of day because well...she does have that sordid past that's still gettin' her all hot and bothered inside. Things "seem" to be going fine until the local gossip mill starts a-churning and whaddaya know but the ol' lothario himself Sanderson makes yet another appearance into her life threatening all sorts of sense and sanity.

As these things usually pan out in film lore everything comes to a by-now film historically potent conclusion as Anna gets kicked out of her home during the worst snowstorm of the year (and in typically finger-pointing dramatic fashion as well!) and deliriously falls upon an hunka ice on a river heading, along with a few hundred other ice floes all heading towards a raging waterfall! It's up to Barthelmess to save our young damsel in distress but will he??? Although you know that H.L. Mencken woulda wanted not only she but her rescuer to go over with the floes that is not to case, and I am so sorry to spoil this 'un for ya in case you were thinking about tracking a copy of this 'un down!

Only Griffith could make me wanna watch such cornballus entertainment w/o making me wanna laugh it up in typical DUDLEY DOO-RIGHT fashion, and his old-tymey mastery of intercutting between scenes to build tension (like when the local wag stomps her way to the squire's hut to blab what she heard about Anna) is just as good as it was over a decade earlier when he used the same technique with someone utilizing the relatively new invention of telephone to thwart a crime. Nice look (best use of color tints since BROKEN BLOSSOMS)  and feel as well, and as usual the entire shebang really dredges up memories of all of those old things that I never did experience in the first place making me wonder where I got them memories to begin with!

One thing about WAY DOWN EAST did  "get to me" though, and that was the role of Kate Bruce (yet another longtime Griffith actress) as the squire's wife. Oh she's a good enough thespian alright, but while we're on the subject of thespians let's think of a SIMILAR word we can use to describe her after seeing that scene where she and Gish (who is on record as being of that third sex persuasion even though you woulda thunk being balled by Babe Ruth woulda set her straight!) engage in a long mouth-to-mouth kiss that's supposed to be taken all Victorian an' all but... Sheesh, it's almost as bad as in ORPHANS OF THE STORM where Lillian and Dorothy are reunited giving way to their face-sucking scene and well, if you can't believe Kenneth Anger on these matters who can you believe?

Seeing it in the here and now ain't as potent as it woulda been had I eyeballed the thing years earlier, but watching something that's a good 95-years-old sure makes more sense to me than tuning into the crud 'n corruption that they call "entertainment" these sad 'n sorry days. And if that makes me an old fogy then gimme some spats, mustache wax, an ear horn and while yer at it call me gramps! It's sure better'n being called Robert Christgau that's for sure!

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