"Way Down East" (1920), Blu-ray. A Kino Lorber release from 2011
Silent Film. Tinted black and white (tinted according to D.W. Griffiths original specifications). 1.34 aspect ratio, 1080i/59.94, 2 hours 30 minutes. Musical Score: DTS-HD MA 5.1 48 kHz, or LPCM 2.0 48 kHz 24-bit. English Inter-titles (no Subtitles). No Commentary. "Normal" Resume Play works.
Extras include three, manual-advance slide shows: The souvenir book of the original Broadway play, the souvenir book of this film's premiere, and a set of lobby cards (color) and production shots (black and white). Also a manual advance, text description of the development of the musical score, a manual advance, text description of the original play, and a brief excerpt (1 minute, restored) of the scene from the 1903 film version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which inspired the ice-flow rescue climax in this film.
Woo Hoo! They just don't make 'em like THIS any more!
Lottie Blair Parker's hit play from 1898 -- originally known in contracted form as, 'Way Down East -- that is, 'Way for Away -- was a moralizing melodrama, ALREADY considered dated by 1920. Indeed, the term "hoary" would even be appropriate. But D.W. Griffith felt so strongly he could make something of it he went all in, paying an astounding $175K for the rights, and spending $700K, all told, to make the film. Contrast with his, "Birth of a Nation", which had a total cost of $112K.
Well, turns out he was right! The film grossed $4.5M -- a major money maker for Griffith, and the 4th highest grossing film of the entire, silent era!
A lot of that had to do with the attraction of Lillian Gish as the lead, "Anna". But Griffith also titillated audiences by filming the BACK story of Anna's seduction -- and downfall -- at the hands of the cad, "Lennox Sanderson" (played with due oiliness by Lowell Sherman). Indeed this movie is already, almost HALF OVER before the time line catches up with the point where the original play BEGINS.
And then, to top it all off, Griffith filmed an astounding climax with Gish being rescued from certain death as she floats unconscious, down-river, towards a massive waterfall -- Niagara Falls was filmed as the establishing shot -- on a broken up ice flow! Griffith got the idea from versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin (a film excerpt is included in the Extras), and the success of the "cliff-hanger" elements in the "Perils of Pauline" films. Keep in mind he's filming all this stuff on a real river, without resort to special effects or trick shots. (Except of course they aren't REALLY about to go over Niagara Falls.) Fun stuff!
Kino has once again hit a home run with this transfer. First of all, the film elements were artfully restored by the Museum of Modern Art, with expert assistance from the team at the Library of Congress. The physically (not digitally) restored result has then been treated to modern tinting, according to the original design.
Now, there's plenty of film damage visible here, but the end product is STILL a marvel! Consider: They had to use 1080i video authoring to allow the flexibility to correct the frame rate (which varied substantially in the hand cranked originals). Next, some of the elements had suffered significant shrinkage and warping over time; to the extent abrasion damage is visible. In a physical restoration like this they couldn't remove such signs of abrasion, but they re-framed the film so the image is absolutely rock steady. You'll realize just how big a challenge this was when you see some frames which look almost like they were about to melt in the projector, and others where the SPROCKET HOLES actually creep in on the right side of the screen! The point is, even with all that degradation, the end result is eminently watchable.
A few scenes are so good they could have come out of a modern camera. Many scenes have modest scratches, nicks and abrasions. But then some brief scenes look like they've been crumpled and then smoothed out with steel wool (severe abrasions). Some scenes were apparently damaged beyond hope and so a few brief scenes are replaced by a "Missing Scene", explanatory title card. In one case the restorers managed to recover sample frames, and so the missing scene is actually represented by a short sequence of still shots. None of these deletions affect the flow of the story line.
Meanwhile, the clarity, detail, and level balance remain very good despite all that -- particularly taking into account the lenses, lighting and film stock of the times. Simply put, PQ on this Kino Blu-ray is *MUCH* better than I expected it to be.
For the audio track (as the text Extra explains) they could not go to the original music score created for the Road Show of the film (i.e., following its New York premiere). That original score has been lost. Instead, they did what they say major independent theater owners would have done at the time: They made a new score out of a library of musical pieces theater owners would have collected for just such a purpose. The text Extra names many of the pieces incorporated into the score, and the logic behind their choice. And the modern (2008) performance of that score sounds just magnificent in the 5.1 track. So give AQ top marks, as well.
This is thoroughly over-the-top, silent screen acting of course. EVERY emotion is telegraphed, then sold. Then OVER-sold. And what better vehicle for that than pure melodrama? It's a hoot!
Try NOT to get teary-eyed while Anna performs the rite of Baptism for her dying baby. Be prepared to hiss the villain -- and cheer the hero! There are comedy elements as well -- drawn from the original play (and possibly the weakest part of the structure of this film).
CENSORHIP NOTE: In this era before the advent of the Production Code, LOCAL censors decided what stayed and what had to go in films playing in their local theaters. In some parts of the country, every scene related to the mock marriage and Anna's subsequent pregnancy were deleted. Leaving startled film-goers to fill in the blanks when a BABY suddenly appeared on screen -- umm, shortly before its death! Of course on this disc, we see the film in its entirety, as Griffith made it.
There's a REASON melodrama was so popular, even as late as the 20s. Audiences of the time ate it up as a piece of nostalgia. And it still works!