Way Down East (D.W. Griffith / U.S., 1920):

D.W. Griffith steering "the Barque of Fate" into the blizzard, Lillian Gish tied to the mast. The betrayed virgin is Hardy’s "maiden no more," a New England naïf among high-society swells, catnip to the "occasional interloper" (Lowell Sherman). Seduced and abandoned, she endures the deaths of her mother and newborn son, her landlady’s undiluted scorn, and a slew of florid intertitles: "Shadows across the time dial. The baby without a name." The big city is a haze of fancy balls and unfeeling conquests, rather Babylonian in its decadence (at her relatives’ mansion, the heroine’s eyes are quickly drawn to the topless figurines adorning the chandelier) and peopled mostly by wan mannequins. By contrast, the farm where she seeks shelter is a sprawl of Scripture-dictated virtue, bashful courtships, and barn hootenannies, where wrath, buffoonery, pettiness and compassion are embodied with Dickensian gusto: The old oak of a local squire, the goatish romantic sipping from the flask in his pocket, the lazy constable and the town gossip who rocks with glee at malicious news, all broad and monstrous, all alive. Wandering through them is Gish’s sublime frenzy, slicing through the mossy melodrama. Infatuated in the wolf’s den, she’s gauzy and girlish, a sprite; stringy and terrified with her sickly infant, she improvises a baptism with basin water and rocking chair in a charged, frontal composition; fumbling with sewing needles while her rustic beau (Richard Barthelmess) declares his love, she pricks cinema’s most expressive hands. Finally, she’s the tiny figure splayed on the frozen river as it cracks into a jigsaw of floes, one of Griffith’s most rousing visions of film as visual-emotional ebb and flow, connection and rupture. There’s an air of Homer Winslow, and a debt to Sjöström. The plate furiously smashed at the dinner table reappears in Potemkin, Borzage never forgot the cut from the mock-marriage to Barthelmess jostled awake in bed. Into Ford and Pudovkin and Vidor and Mizoguchi it goes, all the way to Breaking the Waves. With Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Josephine Bernard, George Neville, Porter Strong, Vivia Odgen, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale, and Emily Fitzroy. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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