In 1920, D.W. Griffith would go on to do a film adaptation of Lottie Blair Parker's play "Way Down East".
Despite the fact that two silent film adaptations were previously done (including a Henry Fonda talkie in 1935), Griffith paid $175,000 for the screen rights to the film and in those days, that was astronomical as it became the most expensive film for the filmmaker. But also one of his most successful films in the box office taking in over $4.5 million in 1920. The film was also known for using an early Technicolor process and for D.W. Griffith, wanting to attain realism, shot the winter scenes during the latter part of the film in an actual blizzard.
Back in 2008, "Way Down East" was included with the Kino International DVD box set "Griffith Masterworks 2' and featured the remastered version by the Museum of Modern Art. Now, "Way Down East" will be released on Blu-ray in Nov. 2011 courtesy of Kino Lorber.
"Way Down East" is presented in 1080p High Definition and the film is color tinted. The film is mastered in HD from the Museum of Modern Art's 35mm restoration with original color tints. It's important to note that the Museum of Modern Art did the best restoration possible with the original existing film elements. With that being said, the film features a lot more clarity and detail in HD compared to its 2008 DVD release.
While the film does have specks, scratches and even moments where we can see film damage, fortunately it's not too bad and doesn't take you away from the actual viewing experience.
With that being said, unfortunately this is not the complete version of the film. There are scenes that are probably lost forever and to help bridge those moments during the film, we are either given an intertitle explaining of what had taken place or a still shot of that scene. Fortunately, some of these missing scenes are not from the most critical moments of the film but one can only hope that similar to "Metropolis", the missing footage for "Way Down East" will one day be found.
But for the most part, this is the best looking version of the film to date. You can also see the icicles develop in Lilian Gish's eyelashes during the blizzard scene much more clearly. And also see the separation of the ice during the action sequence at the end much more clearly as well. If anything, you're getting better clarity than ever before!
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
I loved the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra score for "Way Down East" that was used in the original DVD but to hear it in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, I'm quite impressed to hear the soundtrack come alive. There are certain soundtracks that you hear that stay in your head from time-to-time, especially when watching a film. For silent films, especially with the two Griffith films released on Blu-ray ("Way Down East" and "Birth of a Nation"), the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra have been wonderful! And it's one thing listening to it in stereo but to hear it in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, for me, makes a big difference.
It made various scenes come alive and for the most part, I'm very happy that Kino featured a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 musical soundtrack!
"Way Down East" comes with the following special features:
Film Clip: The ice floe sequence of the Edison Studio's "Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) - (:37) A short video clip of what inspired the ice floe sequence for "Way Down East".
Notes and exerts from the play by Lottie Blair Parker - A text based note on the original play.
Photos of William Brady's 1903 stage production - Using your remote, you can view images from William Brday's 1903 stage production.
Gallery of images from the original souvenir program book - Using your remote, you can view images from the original souvenir book for the film.
Notes on the Musical Score - A text based feature with Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra talking about how he came up with the score.
"Way Down East" comes with a slipcase cover.
"Way Down East" is perhaps one of my favorite love stories from the silent era because of its complexities and because the actors took part in one of the riskiest action sequences to be showcased in a romantic drama.
First, lets talk about the characters. What "Way Down East" manages to accomplish with absolute efficacy is its character development. Griffith slow develops the characters over the course of the film. While certain characters such as the Constable, Hi Holler and Seth Holcomb were featured primarily for laughs and don't really add so much to the film (which I read was added because people would expect those characters from the play to be in the film), from the emotional Anna Moore, the stern Squire Bartlett, the womanizing Lennox Sanderson and the charming David Bartlett, "Way Down East" showcases what most people expect from a dramatic romance story...complexities.
But in this case, complexity is taken to a grand level when Anna Moore is deceived by a womanizer and is forced to raise a baby that dies not long after she gives birth to it. I don't know how people reacted to that scene back then but nevertheless, one can easily be sympathetic to the country girl Anna Moore
Once again, character development was slow but Griffith did a magnificent job in establishing those characters.
But it's the finale that will forever shock viewers to "Way Down East". Even in 2011, I can't imagine how the block of ice and those scenes were created for the film. Last time I watched a silent film that revolved around the use of a waterfall, it was a Buster Keaton film in which he was injured.
But this time, the waterfall looked dangerous and while Hollywood does all it can to protect it's actors and crew in today's working climate in fear of lawsuits, back then, to capture realism such as a snow blizzard, you shoot during a snow blizzard.
For "Way Down East", Griffith and crew waited for a real blizzard in order to film the latter scenes. When you see Lillian Gish walking through the blizzard and seeing the frozen ice on her face, that is not fake snow, that is all real! And that is one of the benefits of Blu-ray is to see the amazing clarity of icicles developing around her eyelashes. Supposedly, Lilian Gish who had to drag her arm in the icy water during the ice floe sequence suffered an injury that would bother that arm for years and decades to come. Granted, Lilian Gish had a body double who did the ice floe sequences but nevertheless, it goes to show how far Griffith wanted to capture realism.
In fact, even D.W. Griffith was injured on set (according to Robert K. Keppler, "Silent Films 1877-1996'). During the filming of the ice floe sequence, in order to break apart the ice, the crew had to use dynamite. But in process, one the blast happened to quickly and Griffith was caught in the blast. Not sure of how badly he was injured, but it was bad to the point that that Elmer Clifton (the stunt double for the character of Anna in the film), would have to direct the remainder of the ice floe sequence.
But the ice floe sequence for this film is what will be remembered most for "Way Down East". It is one of the most dangerous scenes I have seen ever shot on film and as we have seen many complex, death defying stunts accomplished by Buster Keaton on his feature films, this film was rather ambitious and dangerous. With today's CG films to recreate danger, to think about the risk that cast and crew were put in, one again, its how far filmmakers and talent would go in order to create a believable scene.
And as for D.W. Griffith, as a filmmaker who is known for having the grandest of moments in his film, may it be the war scenes of "Birth of a Nation" or the amazing, towering sets designed for "Intolerance", "Way Down East" will be remembered as a romantic drama with one of the most dangerous action sequences of all time.
As for the Blu-ray release of "Way Down East", most silent film fans own the 2008 DVD release or the "Griffith Masterworks 2' DVD box set. I own both sets and they are fantastic! But why upgrade to the Blu-ray version? Well, for "Way Down East", it's primarily clarity and lossless audio. There are no addition special features or shorts included with this release, it's pretty much upgraded for HD! And for some, that may mean a lot!
I can tell you right now, the clarity to see those close-up scenes of Lilian Gish walking through an actual blizzard, you can see the detail much clearly. And for me, hearing the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also another plus because this is a fantastic score for the film!
There is something about listening to this score on DTS-HD MA 5.1 that makes the film come alive more than ever compared to the original stereo 2.0 soundtrack of the 2008 DVD. But to listen to this beautiful soundtrack in its HD uncompressed glory is by owning a receiver and having the speaker setup in order to listen to lossless. So far, with the release of "Way Down East" and "Birth of a Nation", listening to the scores in HD lossless makes a big difference (this is the same sentiment that I have with Kino's prior releases of "Metropolis" and the Buster Keaton films on Blu-ray).
So, if you have the equipment to watch and listen in HD, upgrading from DVD to Blu-ray for "Way Down East" is worth it! Otherwise, if you don't have the equipment, then the very awesome 2008 DVD is good enough.
As for special features, I was hoping to see newer special features added to "Way Down East". In the past Blu-ray releases, Kino Lorber has been very generous by giving us additional featurettes but in this case, they stayed with the original text-based special features and the usual image gallery.
Overall, "Way Down East" is a wonderful romantic drama capturing the complexities of love and heartbreak and in D.W. Griffith fashion, ending with one of the most grandest and dangerous action scenes captured on camera. Featuring a Blu-ray release that trumps the 2008 DVD release in clarity and detail but also its vibrant and fantastic lossless music soundtrack, "Way Down East" is highly recommended, worth owning and worth the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray!