Way Down East (1920)

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Released 1-Jun-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Romance Main Menu Introduction
Menu Audio
Notes-Film Introduction
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1920
Running Time 145:01
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (80:55) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By D.W. Griffith
Studio
Distributor

Beyond Home Entertainment
Starring Lillian Gish
Richard Barthelmess
Lowell Sherman
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $32.95 Music Louis Silvers


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Once again we find Eureka Video delving into the vast back catalogue of silent film, and especially the films of some of the legendary directors of early film making, this time returning to the epic films of D.W. Griffith. In the light of over eighty years of film making advancements, it is rather interesting to look back at the often amazing scope of the films of David Wark Griffith, and the topics that he chose to tackle - in an era not exactly noted for its intolerance. Way Down East certainly fits the mould as far as the subject matter is concerned. It might seem a little pastoral after the epics such as Broken Blossoms, Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance, but what he did with this seemingly pastoral story is rather amazing. It has to be remembered that at the time women were very much second class citizens in most countries of the world and were fighting for the simple right to vote in many of those countries. I can well imagine that this film was required viewing at any suffragette meeting! Quite simply, the film tackles the issue pretty much head on of why women were vilified for doing "the deed" outside of marriage whereas it was almost expected of men. But beyond the mere tackling of issues that were generally not attempted in film of the era, or least not in mainstream film of the era, was the depth of the film making. Remember that this was 1920 and there were no such things as big sound stages for the building of sets, and luxuries such as stunt persons and body doubles had yet to become part of the American film making industry. Thus when the film required foul, wintry snow storms, it was actually filmed in wintry conditions, and that climatic scene of the film on the ice floes was done for absolute real. That really is Lillian Gish out there pretty well freezing to death on the ice - and she did pay for it for the rest of her life apparently, as a result of the hypothermia in her right hand. At the time she was perhaps the biggest female star of the industry. Could you even imagine the likes of Julia Roberts actually doing that sort of stuff for real in this day and age? You might see it still in Hong Kong films but this sort of dedication to the art in American film died many years ago.

    This is at its absolute core an exceedingly simple story indeed, and certainly lived up to its billing as A Simple Story of Plain People. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a young New England girl living with her mother. Times are very tough and her mother decides to send Anna off to Boston to seek alms from a wealthy relative, Mrs Tremont (Josephine Bernard). Arriving inopportunely during a ritzy party, the simple homespun country girl is obviously well out of her league and is basically consigned to her room. However, another rather eccentric and very wealthy aunt (Florence Short) gets her own back against the Tremonts by insisting that Anna attend the next "do", whereupon she becomes the new infatuation of wealthy playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). So determined is he to "have her", in the best vernacular description without being obscene, that he arranges a mock wedding and convinces Anna that they are man and wife, but the marriage is to be kept a secret so that he does not lose his means of support (namely one rich father). The result of that mock marriage is of course that Anna loses her virginity and also becomes pregnant. Upon telling Lennox, in a rather indirect manner, he admits to the deception and promptly disowns her, in the true tradition of an upper class cad. Left to her own devices, and being with child, Anna takes a room at Belden House, a rooming house away from Boston and her home town, where she has the child. However, the child falls ill and dies, and it is soon determined by the landlady that she is not married and is thus cast out onto the streets in disgrace.

    Without any means of support, Anna now wanders about trying to find work and eventually happens upon the Bartlett farm, residence of the religious Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). Urged to give Anna a chance by his wife, Squire Bartlett agrees to give her work. This pleases their young son David (Richard Barthelmess) no end, but local gossip Martha Perkins (Vivia Ogden) is not so convinced. Everything seems to be going well for Anna eventually, when Lennox Sanderson reappears on the scene. It turns out that he lives on the next farm and wants Anna out of the way in order to not cramp his style with his next infatuation, Kate Brewster (Mary Hay, who replaced Clorine Seymour who died during filming) who also happens to be the woman that David is supposed to marry. Lennox threatens Anna but she makes her own threats and gets to stay - at least until Martha happens upon Anna's old landlady at the sewing circle, where she is informed of Anna's past. She imparts the information to Squire Bartlett, who casts her out of his home as a women of no repute. Anna lets loose with a few home truths about the gentleman visitor to their home before disappearing into the snow storm. The climatic scene sees a frantic David trying to find Anna, as his father comes to terms with what he has done.

   This is an age-old story, and an exceedingly simple story. As this was made in the immediate aftermath of World War I, when innocence had well-and-truly been knocked out of the American people, it really is quite incredible that D.W. Griffith managed to turn the play upon which the film is based not just into a successful box-office film, but also a quite enduring film. The version of the film on the DVD is actually a re-edited version done in 1928 and subsequently re-released for theatrical performance, a performance that lasted through to the early 1930s when the music was actually recorded. As ever with his films, they succeeded because all the elements worked well: performance, story, cinematography and direction. Across the board, this is probably the most consistent cast of any of D.W. Griffith's films that I have reviewed. Whilst the star is as ever the marvellous Lillian Gish, with her stunning use of those puppy-dog eyes that convey every melodramatic emotion with utter ease, she does not quite outshine the rest of the cast with such ease here. Lowell Sherman is utterly convincing as the playboy, so much so that I would not be at all surprised if that was his reputation in film circles in real life! Richard Barthelmess plays the love sick, but rather pragmatic, country boy to almost perfection and is a perfect foil for the wily ways of the playboy. Strong performances too from Burr McIntosh and Vivia Ogden aid the story telling here no end, as does the fact that you do not need to be an expert lip-reader to know what they were saying but we can't hear.

   Once again D.W. Griffith dishes up some superb melodrama that is also once again not going to be to the tastes of all. The heavy emphasis, intentional or otherwise, upon the females being the broad upholders of the concept of chastity here makes for an interesting twist in the whole film though, and on that score perhaps it could be labelled almost sexist. Very much like Broken Blossoms, it does take a little while to get into the film as Griffith takes a nice steady pace in the build up, but the last thirty minutes are powerful indeed, even if the acting is way on the melodramatic side of things. In fact, about the only films you could really compare it to are other films from D.W. Griffith. As a film, this is yet another essential for fans of the silent era and good melodrama. However, you are going to need a lot of perseverance with the transfer here, a transfer that fully contradicts the concept of fully restored. If this is truly fully restored, the original source material must have been almost non-existent.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and it is, naturally enough, not 16x9 enhanced. Of all the DVDs from the silent era that have come from this source, I would have to say that this is by far the worst and it truly does demonstrate every last one of its eighty one years.

    It should be noted that the very top of the frame appears to be have been missed/chopped off/possibly otherwise not included here, and this may indicate that unless your display device has plenty of overscan, the transfer may appear a lot closer to 1.37:1 than would normally be the case. It may well be of course that this is the whole print and the transfer is actually 1.37:1, which is the original theatrical aspect ratio.

    Just where do you start with the problems in this video transfer? Chronologically, the first thing that jumps out at you is the telecine wobble in the opening credits, which wander back and forth across the screen like a drunk on a push bike. Then it gets worse - very much worse. Apart from a couple of rare moments, the transfer never approaches anything resembling a sharp image. This really is a diffuse mess at times and so sadly lacking in definition that it rivals such appalling efforts as Till The Clouds Roll By and Spitfire - both inductees in the Hall Of Shame. This diffuse image is at times seriously hampered by the choice of tinting (yes, this is a tinted film and the range of tints is quite large, as evidenced by some of the lurid looking shots on the back cover of the packaging). However between the rare moments of sharpness and the dregs of diffuse mess, there actually appears a reasonably decent transfer with enough sharpness that at least the picture can be seen pretty well and with enough definition to at least see some detail in anything but the foreground.

    Clarity is a sadly deficient commodity in this transfer, which is plagued with extreme pixelization at times. The pixelization ensures that there are periods in the film that display all edges in a sort of notched effect that is pretty difficult to ignore. Some pretty shoddy examples are at 61:46 and 82:16, but there are so many examples of where it can be found that you will soon become very familiar with the problem. Even when pixelization is not an issue, there is still plenty of evidence of moderate grain in the transfer. Shadow detail is pretty average throughout, but that is hardly surprising in a film of this vintage.

    This transfer is described as tinted, but not even the back cover can really prepare you for the breadth of the tint colours here. Some are actually hellish good looking, such as the lightish blue used to signify night time scenes, but others are quite grotesque looking and seriously rob the generally poor tonal variation of any serious gradation across the grey scales. The result is often a somewhat murky looking transfer depending upon what tint is being used at any one time. Suffice it to say that the underlying black and white film is not the best as far as emphasis of the black and white tones are concerned. This really is a grey film.

    There is copious evidence of MPEG artefacts in the transfer, most notably the continual problem with pixelization in the transfer. On a few occasions, there was the distinct impression of some digital tape drop out, but this could just have been some extreme film artefact problems (of which there are plenty). There is thankfully nothing much in the way of aliasing in the transfer, but other film-to-video artefacts are on evidence here, including interlacing issues (66:10 appears to be a good example, which funnily enough is also where one of the possible digital tape drop outs is sighted) and some ghosting in the image that almost appears to be interlacing. The telecine wobble is most noticeable in the opening credits but it would appear that this is a minor problem throughout the transfer. As for film artefacts.... I really have not seen such a display as here and they are very distracting at times and certainly you cannot avoid them. Snow storms abound at times, and at others there is every sort of mark and scratch you can imagine and possibly a few you could not imagine. This is one seriously degraded piece of source material and had this been a less important film you would have to question why anyone would even want to try and transfer it to DVD. The last four or five minutes of the film are especially atrocious with some obvious heat bubbling having damaged the film stock and added a whole distortion to the image that does not aid the situation in the slightest. It is really difficult to ignore the three large white blocks that mar the transfer at 66:50 nor the equally large three black blocks that mar the transfer at 66:51. Clearly the film stock has at some time been folded upon itself and the emulsion has pulled from the one side of the fold when the film was straightened out. All in all this is a shocking looking video transfer and it really is difficult and almost pointless to catalogue all the evidence to back up the statement. I am really pushing hard to recall any video transfer this bad, not even amongst those DVDs that I have inducted into the Hall Of Shame.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change coming rather obviously at 80:55. It is rather obvious as it comes about seventeen seconds into Part 2 of the film and right bang in the middle of some musical accompaniment. Naturally, the layer change is made obvious due to the pause in the music as the layer change is navigated. I don't know who was responsible for the placement of the layer change, but the layer change could have been placed far better. The interlude between Part 1 and Part 2 lasts from 80:31 to 80:38, during which time there is only a title board displayed on screen with no musical accompaniment. Quite frankly, I would love to hear someone try and explain to me why the layer change was not placed in the interlude where it would have been virtually undetectable and completely non-disruptive. Oh, for the sake of twenty seconds!

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, being notionally an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Naturally enough for a silent film, it is actually only an accompanying musical score soundtrack, and short of turning the volume way down to nothing you have no choice but to listen to it. This is in actual fact a 1931 recording of the film score composed for the 1928 re-release of the film and is about as authentic as you can get as far as the accompaniment is concerned. However, it wears that 1931 vintage well and truly on its sleeve.

    I think we can dispense with the jokes about perfect unheard dialogue and the shocking lack of audio sync in the transfer this time round!

    The musical accompaniment comes from Louis Silvers, and is arguably as close to original as we are going to get. Obviously the demands of silent films are not the same as those for modern films, and the score tends to be more overtly melodramatic than we would expect today. In that respect, the score succeeds admirably, and makes a fine contribution to the mood of the film.

    Being a 1931 recording, we have to expect somewhat less than pristine sound and unfortunately those expectations are not avoided. This really is a rather congested sounding soundtrack, with plenty in the way of inherent background hiss. Whilst the hiss is not really overt, it certainly is always there and just adds a layer of clothing to the sound that it really could do without. Of course, these sorts of imperfections are probably in the balance more preferable to having a modern, digital recording that does nothing but highlight the difference in the age of the video and audio transfers. Once you get used to the sound on offer here, it is not that bad at all, and certainly it is possible to actually find it quite listenable, especially when you do as I do for these sorts of films and turn the volume down a little. There is of course no surround channel nor bass channel use here at all.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Not much on offer in this package from Force Video, but again that is not that unexpected given that this is an eighty one year old film. That audio commentary from a suitably qualified film historian, or indeed someone connected with the film restoration, would not have gone astray here at all.

Menu

    Nothing really special but it does have some decent enough main menu introduction animation and some audio enhancement in the menus themselves.

Notes - Film Introduction

    Some decent notes about the film, some of the background to the film and some of the problems on shooting the film. They are presented in a scrolling text fashion. Whilst a bit of a pain to read, I found them to be quite informative.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Whilst reliable data on the Region 1 release is somewhat difficult to track down, as are any really reliable independent reviews, it would seem from the general tone of reviews on sites such as amazon.com that the Region 1 release is very comparable to the Region 4 with respect of the transfers. They remain quite silent on any extras, but frankly in a film of this vintage I would hardly be over-emphasising the presence or lack of substantial extras. This one seems to be an even call.

Summary

    Way Down East is another glorious example of melodrama from one of the most important directors of the silent film era. It is rated extremely highly by an admittedly limited number of voters on the Internet Movie Database, and I have no qualms about endorsing those sentiments with respect of the film itself. The video transfer is however plagued with problems, not all of which are source material related, and it is going to require some serious fortitude to sit through this film. The lack of quality in the audio transfer is less of an issue here. If you want to push the sense of adventure a little in your film viewing, then this is one that you might consider even though there are plenty of deficiencies in the transfers. Sometimes, you just have to look beyond the transfer and see the film - which you can just about do here. By all rights this should be in the Hall Of Shame but I doubt that such an accolade would be truly fair upon material of this vintage.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Thursday, July 26, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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