Way Down East (1920) Director: D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith)
D.W. Griffith was apparently drawn to more sentimental film-making in his later years with films like Way Down East and Broken Blossoms. Once again, Griffith’s leading star Lillian Gish delivers a tender performance as an outcasted young woman who has fallen on hard times. However, in my view, Way Down East lacks the magic of Griffith’s earlier films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East is a pitiable little melodrama, with an all-too-perfect ending, which strains credulity when viewed in a certain light. There were actually four movies made from the original play of the same name by Lottie Blair Parker. This was actually the third silent film based on the story, and it was later followed by a 1935 “talkie” starring Henry Fonda. Way Down East was one of Griffith’s most commercially successful films, and it was also even more expensive than The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was subtitled: “A Simple Story of Plain People.”
As with other Griffith films, Way Down East stars Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) and Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett) who also played Cheng Huan in Broken Blossoms (1919). He was later nominated for the first Oscar for Best Actor.
The opening title reads:
“Since the beginning of time man has been polygamous – even the saints of Biblical history – but the Son of Man gave a new thought, and the world is growing nearer the true ideal. He gave of One Man for One Woman. Not by laws – our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws – but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy. Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any other point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached this high standard – except perhaps in theory.”
Anna and her mother are impoverished and in need of money so Anna travels to the city in search of money from her wealthy cousin. Her cousin and sisters reject Anna at a ball, until their obscure extremely wealthy aunt offers Anna some nice clothes. However, at the ball Anna catches the eye of Lennox Sanderson, a known womanizer. Lennox lures Anna to his house saying that his relative will meet them there, but when she arrives only two of them remain alone in the house. Lennox tries to grab Anna but she grows angry until he says he wants to marry her. She is immediately smitten and accepts. They are then married in a sham wedding staged by Lennox with some friends acting as false religious figures (he has paid them to pose as clergy). Soon, the couple begin their honeymoon during which Anna gets pregnant, and later Lennox admits that the wedding was a sham, leaving Anna sad, lonely, and with a child.
Meanwhile, near the Sanderson family estate is Bartlett Village, a country farm owned by Squire Butler and his attractive, well-spoken son named David.
After Anna’s mother dies, she wanders away to hide her shame and she gives birth to her baby, who then gets sick and dies. She then goes to find work and winds up on Bartlett’s farm where David quickly falls in love with her. Soon rumors circulate that Anna has delivered an illegitimate child and Bartlett, in a rage, banishes Anna, sending her out into a snowstorm. This all occurs during an awkward dinner in which Lennox is visiting and making passes at another girl at the house, Kate, to whom David was initially betrothed from a young age. David follows Anna out into the storm and rescues her from a floating piece of ice before she can tumble down a waterfall (these were highly dangerous scenes which left Lillian Gish’s hand damaged from the freezing waters, though the floating ice she rested upon was actually made of wood). In the final scenes, Lennox apologizes to Anna and offers to marry her, but Anna rejects him over David. Together Anna and David get married, along with two other couples from the film. It concludes with a blissful fairy-tale ending.