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New music revives old movie

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East" (1920). The classic screens Oct. 14 with a brand new soundtrack by composer Philip Rothman.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East" (1920). The classic screens Oct. 14 with a brand new soundtrack by composer Philip Rothman.

— The lovely Lillian Gish — The First Lady of the Silent Screen — graces that big screen again when the Syracuse International Film Festival presents D.W., Griffith’s 1920 blockbuster “Way Down East,” at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 14, at The Palace Theater in Eastwood.

Not only will the Palace audience see Gish’s character despoiled, deserted and finally rescued from a jagged ice floe floating down a river, they’ll also get to hear a brand new score written and performed for the 91-year-old film.

The Society for New Music will perform a new soundtrack by the precocious 34-year-old Buffalo-born composer Philip Rothman. He’ll conduct the Society’s musicians — Linda Greene, flute; John Friedrichs, clarinet/bass clarinet; Cristina Buciu, violin; Kit Dodd, viola; David LeDoux, cello; Julie Bridge, horn; Sar Shalom Strong, piano — as the film screens next Friday at the Palace.

Tough and funny

“Way Down East,” centers on a naive country girl named Anna (Lillian Gish) who is tricked into a sham marriage by a rich, callous womanizer (Lowell Sherman). She must then rebuild her life despite the taint of having borne a child out of wedlock. The film is perhaps best remembered for its thrilling climax in which Anna is rescued from doom on an icy river.

“It’s exciting to be part of this international film festival in such a unique way,” Rothman said. “‘Way Down East’ is one of the great classics of the silent film era. Bringing it to life with new music is a fun and challenging task.”

Made for the then-staggering sum of $175,000, “Way Down East” is the fourth-highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more than $4,500,000 at the box office in 1920.

Despite the movie’s melodramatic plot, Gish — who was just 26 at the time it was shot — rises above the material, giving a tough, funny, intuitive performance, particularly mid-film as Anna bears her illegitimate child. No wonder the American Film Institute named Gish one of the Top 20 female film stars of all time. She kept working in movies through 1987 and died in 1993 at age 99.

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