Way Down East

Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” (1920).

If you’re willing to step back a century or so this weekend (and who isn’t?), drop by Metrograph at 7 Ludlow Street for a screening of the 1920 D.W. Griffith film Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. And let’s not call it a silent film — they never were silent, really; Nicholas Sosin will be providing a live piano accompaniment at both the Saturday and Sunday shows.

Yes, this is the famous ice floe film, with Gish making her way gingerly across a frozen river at, probably, Orient Point, Long Island. Her character, Anna Moore, has just been turned out of a house as a woman of sin in the film’s rip-roaringly melodramatic plot, and although the film is based on an 1897 pot-boiler by Lottie Blair Parker some recent critics have considered it a proto-feminist statement, sort of. But in a short review for the Washington Post in 1994, Mark Adamo wrote, “Even the film’s seeming pioneering of feminism is hoary: the Leviticus-style titles would have us believe that Lillian Gish’s tremulous ingenue fallen prey to a heavily mascaraed roue is ‘the story of Woman.'” Well, plenty of heavily masacaed roues about these days. More positively, Adamo also noted, “What’s amazing is that so much of Gish’s tough, funny, intuitive performance, particularly in the film’s middle section as she bears her illegitimate child, transcends time, place and technology. Equally amazing is Griffith’s mighty striving, with his arty location shots, quirky close-ups and riskily staged set pieces, to forge a new and expressly cinematic style.”

Richard Brody was equally enthusiastic about the film in the New Yorker in this undated essay:

Griffith’s Homeric artistry and his painterly insight — his view of the conflict between nature’s horrors (those of a blizzard and those found in the hearts of predators) and its glories (the peaceful landscape and the heart of true virtue) — come to full flower in Way Down East.

And don’t miss Brody’s short, two-minute illustrated discussion of the film at the end of the article.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, Metrograph has a bar upstairs, where you can argue proto-feminism to your heart’s content after the show. Way Down East will be screened this Saturday, January 20, at 1.00pm and Sunday, January 21, at 7.30pm. The 35mm print comes from a preservation made by The Museum of Modern Art with support from The Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation. It runs for 145 minutes. Tickets and information here. If you miss it, you can purchase it from Kino Lorber here.