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'Way Down East' (NR)

By Mark Adamo
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 18, 1994

D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East," a nearly three-hour domestic melodrama filmed in a sprawling, epic style, was screened Saturday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art. It was accompanied, for the first time in Washington, by its long-forgotten original score, as reconstructed and conducted by Library of Congress musicologist Gillian Anderson.

What's astounding about the film is not that the rickety conventions of 1890s stage melodrama dog its every frame. (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.") 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.

The score, which William Frederick Peters and Louis Silvers stitched together from ragtime, popular songs and a little Liszt, seems baldly illustrative today: e.g., "The Old Gray Mare (Ain't What She Used to Be)" pops up in the brass over footage of a stubborn dray. As an artifact of the years in which film music occupied an uneasy terrain between foreground and background functions -- sometimes substituting for drama, sometimes merely enhancing it -- it retains interest. Kudos to Anderson and her able musicians for performing nearly three hours' worth of unceasing music with but one intermission. "Tristan" demands no less.

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