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Slow, Stately, and Magnificent
drednm2 January 2008
WAY DOWN EAST was an old-fashioned melodrama even in 1920 when D.W. Griffith decided to film it. It's the kind of story that leaves itself open for spoofing, but Griffith approaches the story of a "mock marriage" and its aftermath with earnestness and a great eye for detail.

Aiding Griffith in bringing this story to life are three great stars: Lillian Gish as Anna, Richard Barthelmess as David, and Lowell Sherman as caddish Lennox. The supporting cast includes New England "types" that almost parody Dickens. Kate Bruce is the staunch mother, Creighton Hale the ditzy professor, Vivia Ogden the town gossip, Burr McIntosh the intolerant squire, Emily Fitzroy runs the hotel, etc.

The story of love, betrayal, tolerance, and redemption is slow moving and has (as usual in a Griffith film) subplots, but like the very river, all the actions and events slowly come together for the finale that left 1920 audiences in a frenzy. Indeed the ending is among the most famous in all silent films.

Gish is quite beautiful here. In her opening scene she is in her parlor with her mother making a broom, holding up the straw so that we see only her white cap and large expressive eyes. She's stunning. As Anna she goes through the gamut of shy maiden, young lover, wronged woman, timid servant, and town jezebel. Barthelmess is solid as the young and innocent David who falls in love with the servant girl.

Their final scenes in the blizzard (filmed on Long Island in a real storm) on the icy river (filmed in White River Junction, VT) are totally amazing. And they did not use stunt doubles. As Gish lies exhausted on the piece of ice she may or may not know that it's heading for the falls. There are scenes were her hand and hair trail in the icy river. Just amazing. Barthelmess uses the breaking ice as a trail so that he can reach Gish before it's too late. There are several shots where he falls off the ice or the ice breaks under him and he plunges into that wintry river. The entire sequence is as thrilling today as it was in 1920.

Gish once wrote that her long hair froze solid from being in the river water and snapped off with the ice.

WAY DOWN EAST is a great film.
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Fabulous and Frustrating
randybigham17 January 2005
This enormously successful film lives up to its legendary reputation. But it's also disappointing.

The atmospheric splendor of the cinematography and the melancholy mood set by the original musical score (on the Kino Video release) lull the viewer into the sense of reverie essential to appreciating this charming representation of countrified America facing the encroachment of big city evils.

The story is well-told by director D.W. Griffith, and the moral message of Woman's spiritual virtuosity is exploited without the sermonizing of some of his other pictures. There is a sensitivity and naturalness exhibited in the unfolding narrative of Way Down East and a graceful style seen in none of his other epic-scale ventures. In bringing the sweetness of his famous one-reelers to a major feature film, Griffith captured an almost magical tone and ambiance that distinguishes Way Down East as a masterful piece of intimate storytelling, rivaling Broken Blossoms (1919) in its intensity and sheer beauty.

However, it must be said that Griffith's sideline excesses in plot development are many and varied, hindering the progression of the central tale of Anna Moore's struggle to escape her past and search out a new life. Annoying bits of slapstick humor, totally at odds with the romance and tragedy of the main story, are indulged in while overly sentimental touches, like long, wistful close-ups, are equally aggravating.

Though otherwise superbly acted by Lillian Gish (Anna), her role is marred by the fact that some of her more emotional scenes are unnecessarily drawn out by Griffith. This is particularly true in the sequence of the death of Anna's illegitimate newborn.

Richard Barthelmess, as David Bartlett, Anna's sweetheart and savior, is outstandingly effective, as is Lowell Sherman as the decadent cad Lennox Sanderson who deceives Anna. Not all of the supporting cast was as competent or convincing, due largely to out-of-place comedic impersonations.

One huge stand out is Mary Hay who leaps onto the screen with a refreshing vivacity. The wit she imparts to her small role is the only really clever humor in the movie.

Long-forgotten today, but much discussed at the time, was the cameo appearance in the movie's prologue of popular New York society girl Mrs. Morgan Belmont, who played Diana Tremont, one of Anna's snooty Boston cousins. To do justice to her part, as well as to form an exciting contrast to the pastoral images to follow, Griffith went all out in the costume department, hiring top fashion designer Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) to design glitzy gowns for the garden party and ball scenes.

Despite some errors in continuity, Way Down East's celebrated climax of Anna's rescue from an ice-flow as it drifts toward a roaring waterfall, is perfectly paced and as thrilling as it must have been to audiences in 1920. Considering the limited special effects of the day, the scenes are amazingly realistic. Gish lying unconscious on an ice cake as it zooms to destruction, her arm trailing in the current, is one of the most familiar silent film shots, even to people who know next to nothing about the genre, and although it has become almost cliché, its power is undiminished.

As a story, Way Down East is both fabulous and frustrating but its photographic beauty and emotional resonance are almost unparalleled in the Griffith oeuvre.
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Gish brings it home
Rainsford5512 October 2001
Lillian Gish and fellow co-stars really bring home this great drama. It's interesting and exciting and wonderful to watch. Surely a legend of the 20th Century, Mr Griffith outdid himself with this successful film and Gish can only be praised for a great performance. Her pain and despair can be felt in the scene's where she realises she's been 'betrayed' and she nurses her child while he slips from this world. It's acting at it's finest for no words were necessary, it's all in 'the look'. Certainly 10 out of 10, but if I were to make one comment about this film in the negative, it would be it's length. Perhaps 15 to 20 minutes too long. Otherwise it's majestic.
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Still a Gripping, Absorbingly Real Drama After 80 Plus Years
lawprof28 March 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Today's films dissect with the latest pseudotheories and experimental science every aspect of human relationships. Technology run wild turns the screen into an advertisement for a future we ought to be wary about. How refreshing it is to stop the clock and enjoy D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East." A friend who loves silent film lent me her tape last night and I've seen it twice, putting aside for four hours everything from nonsense at work to the grim reality of war in Iraq.

D. W. Griffith's name comes to the fore most frequently, and not necessarily in a complimentary light, with often polarized discussions of America's history as depicted in movies, especially with regard to race. "Way Down East" doesn't touch on historical themes but he does candidly and openly explore moral issues that in his time were either evaded or resolved with harsh condemnation of those who strayed from the path of religious dogma-inspired righteousness.

The wonderful Lillian Gish is Anna Moore, who loses her mother and seeks, being bereft of money, shelter from rich relatives. A very familiar story (most recently brought to the screen in the latest adaptation of Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby"). Taken in, albeit grudgingly, by a rich aunt and treated with lighthearted contempt by two sisters, she meets Lennox Sanderson, played by Lowell Sherman. Sanderson is a cad, a seducer of innocent virgins. Rather than the sneering evildoer so familiar to devotees of silent films, Sherman invests his role with a mixture of cruel cunning and stupid incomprehension of the harm he causes to Anna. He stages a mock wedding to get her into bed and subsequently abandons the pregnant Anna. The depth of his acting starkly brings the shallowness of his character to life.

After losing her baby, Anna is taken in as a house servant by a sanctimonious farmer who blindly adheres to the literal letter of biblical law. Of course his wife is a near saint. What next? A love interest for Anna which she spurns, believing herself unworthy of a good man's attention. Richard Barthelmess, who brings a manly but compassionate character to life, chases Anna demurely and respectfully from parlor room to - ice flow adrift in a raging torrent of water approaching (music increases in tempo) a waterfall.

Anna's peril on the ice is one of the most famous silent film scenes and almost eighty-five years later it still works. Largely that's because no one - no one - could film a scene like that as did D.W. Griffith.

Incidentally, in a barnyard dance scene is a very young Norma Shearer.

A remarkable film that holds a viewer's rapt attention (mine, at least) and which proves both the sometimes superfluity of words to tell a story and the lasting legacy D.W. Griffith gave us.

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Gish Suffers Nobly
evanston_dad3 January 2006
"Way Down East" will probably be a hard pill for many filmgoers to swallow, as it's a silent and very long, but I would recommend you give it a try, as it's also pretty entertaining.

Lillian Gish gets put through her melodramatic paces by the granddaddy of modern cinema, D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a master at building his movies up to intolerably exciting finales, and this film is no exception. A classic set piece puts Gish trying to escape across a frozen river, jumping from one drifting block of ice to the next. And consider that this was in the day before special effects, and it's even quite possible that Gish did all of the stunts herself.

A slice of early cinema that goes down easily if you give it the chance.

Grade: A-
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A Simple Story Of Plain People
Ron Oliver28 September 2004
A young woman, after being lured into a false marriage, finds the chance for happiness on a friendly farm WAY DOWN EAST.

David Wark Griffith, the Father of American Cinema, had his last great financial blockbuster with this highly sentimentalized silent melodrama. Always anxious to promote decency & morality with his epic films, Griffith here exposes & castigates male brutality against the weaker female, making this a stark portrayal of Good versus Evil as he follows the fortunes and misfortunes of his long-suffering heroine.

Bird-like & fragile, Lillian Gish takes the brunt of the plot upon her young shoulders. To say that she performs magnificently is only to state the expected. The wealth of emotions stealing across her lovely face give expression to her every thought, as her character struggles to maintain her equilibrium against the onslaughts hurled against her.

Richard Barthelmess portrays the quietly heroic farm lad who becomes paladin for Miss Gish during her tribulations while abiding in his home. His stalwart decency is in strong contrast to the villainy of Lowell Sherman, the rich roué whose misdeeds nearly destroy Lillian.

Griffith's broad canvas allows for detailed portraits by a fine supporting cast: a pharisaical squire (Burr McIntosh), his saintly wife (Kate Bruce), a butterfly-chasing professor (Creighton Hale), a dour landlady (Emily Fitzroy), a lazy, good-natured constable (George Neville), a jolly, oafish farmhand (Edgar Nelson), and a gossiping spinster (Vivia Ogden).

The film climaxes with one of the most famous sequences in all of Silent Cinema: Barthelmess' rescue of Miss Gish as she lies unconscious on an ice floe, speeding towards a tremendous waterfall. Filmed on Long Island in the dead of Winter, the performers were in real peril. These scenes still pack a punch and are worthy testimony to Griffith's genius.

Special mention should be made of the cinematography of G. W. Bitzer, Griffith's invaluable cameraman. His beautiful photography softly illumines both the tender scenes and the bucolic vistas, giving them the quality of aged snapshots in a cherished family album.
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Griffith knew his stuff
rensamuels4 December 2006
I just finished watching Way Down East. It was extremely powerful and moving. Gish is at her best, and while she may take getting used to if you've never seen her before, because she is a bit twittery, she is also a unique beauty with enormously expressive eyes and nervous mannerisms that make her perfect in this role as the poor innocent done wrong by the sophisticated older man. Like they say, the story's as old as the hills, and I was surprised but pleased at the happy ending, considering she had a baby out of wedlock--usually women were punished in the old films, even if it wasn't their fault. Little things like Richard Barthelmess petting a pigeon on the head, blossoms bouncing gently in the breeze, the play of light at sunset through Gish's hair as she stands by the river.... There's an appreciation of the beauty of nature and the gentle aspects of the human soul that's not much seen anymore. Just watching the men haying in the fields, the old barn dance, a horse and sled heading down a long avenue of tall trees is a pleasure, a record of days gone by that we don't get much chance to see anywhere else. Of course Gish floating down the river on the ice in the denouement is a classic. I highly recommend this film to any sensitive movie-lover.
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"And then the storm."
utgard1424 July 2017
D.W. Griffith's lengthy silent melodrama about a naive young woman from the country who is taken advantage of by a cad. Later she finds love with a nice, sweet boy but her past comes back to haunt her. Never one to shy away from expressing his personal beliefs in his films, Griffith uses this simple story to sermonize about the moral character of men (basically they're all either doe-eyed innocents or total bastards) while also finding time to criticize the idle rich and prop up women as madonna figures. The opening title cards inform us men were never meant to be monogamous but we should try to be because Jesus said so...or something like that. Show that to your grandma's church group.

Star Lillian Gish is terrific at expressing emotions with her face and body. Few actresses, silent era or since, have been able to convey so much without words. Then we have her performance in the climax. Watching Gish fling herself about in the ice and snow, knowing it caused permanent physical damage to her hand...well it's a disturbingly impressive dedication to one's craft. She really is one of the all-time greats. Babyfaced Richard Barthelmess and the rest of the cast are also good.

On the negative side it is slow-going, particularly in the first half, with a lot of drawing room stuff and side visits through the local corn. As the film goes along, it becomes darker and more interesting, culminating in the justifiably famous snow storm finale with special effects provided by Mother Nature. Definitely worth a look for anyone who wants to see the best of the silent era, but I would advise against starting here. This is the type of film you need to be used to the silent movie pros & cons before attempting to watch it. That first hour or so is likely to drive away impatient viewers.
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"Visions wide as the world"
Steffi_P1 January 2010
You can't keep a good story down. DW Griffith's film of Way Down East was an adaptation of a popular play of the late 19th century, but that play was itself a rather flagrant rip-off of the Robert Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. True, the ending was substantially altered, and Way Down East's conclusions were fustily moralist compared with Hardy's bold progressiveness, but this in a way just goes to show how almost identical situations and characters can be adapted to suit a variety of means. Griffith keeps the moral sentiments of the play, but for this "elaboration" (the word used in the picture's publicity material at the time) he craftily sheers it of its staginess to produce a work of pure cinema.

Technically Griffith may by now have been overtaken by his peers, but he has lost none of his ability to show character and intention through meaningful staging and encouragement of naturalistic acting. For example, when Lillian Gish turns up at her rich relatives' home, no title card reveals her sense of being out of her depth, but Griffith often keeps her in long shot, emphasising the isolating vastness of the house, and this has an impact on how we view the scene. We then realise Mrs Tremont's embarrassment at having this poor cousin walk into her life by the distance the woman keeps from Gish and her awkward attempts to avoid eye contact. One of the most nicely done scenes is the one of Gish's wedding to Lowell Sherman. Unconventionally, he keeps the camera behind the pastor, obscuring the couple, and keeping a cold empty space in the foreground. This really gives us the impression that something is not right here, even though we haven't been explicitly told so yet.

What really impresses about Way Down East is its beauty, which suffuses almost every frame – exquisite countryside vistas, painterly shot compositions, not to mention many radiant close-ups of Ms Gish. Griffith always liked to make his pictures pleasing to the eye, but there is method in all this gorgeousness. Griffith uses natural beauty to emphasise the idyll of the Bartlett farm, and it's no coincidence that this is at its most striking in the shots when Gish first arrives there. And Griffith continually flatters Gish with the camera, framing her tenderly and often in soft focus, creating a visual metaphor for her delicacy and purity.

Gish's acting is of top standard, far better than the hysterical hamming she displayed in the previous year's Broken Blossoms. It's also nice to see her in a proper adult role rather than the disturbingly odd little girl figure she was in that earlier picture. Richard Barthelmess is also excellent, and like Gish he is capable of expressing a lot by doing very little. Together Gish and Barthelmess give what are probably the best lead performances of any of Griffith's features. No-one else in this cast makes an exceptional impact, but none of them is outstandingly bad either.

A fair few of those supporting players appear mainly for comic relief, and there are by Griffith's standards an unusually large number of comedic interludes in Way Down East. This unfortunately was one of Griffith's biggest weak spots. Some of these gags look like they might be fairly funny in themselves, but they don't look it because Griffith keeps hammering them home with close-ups, making them seem forced and predictable. He should have taken a leaf from his pal Chaplin's book, and shown a series of jokes in a continuous shot, giving them a more natural flow and getting more laughs as a result.

Watching Way Down East also makes me wish Griffith the writer had more confidence in Griffith the director, as well as in his cast and his audience. This picture has far more intertitles than it really needs. There are several which reveal Lennox to be a bounder, but these are superfluous because there are enough clues in the way he scenes are staged and the way Lowell Sherman plays him. It would be far more satisfying for the audience if they were allowed to figure out for themselves that he is up to no good. Still, this is a comparatively small blight on what is one of DW Griffith's most visually lovely, deeply engaging and marvellously acted pictures.
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Classic D.W Griffith Melodrama With Gish
jem13225 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
D.W Griffith's outstanding 'Way Down East' is one of the best films produced by America in the silent era. It is a monument to epic film-making, and the talents of it's director, Griffith, and it's star, the great Lillian Gish.

In a plot very similar to that of Thomas Hardy's famous novel 'Tess Of The D'Urbervilles', Gish portrays Anna Moore, a poor farm girl who must leave her relatives in search of assistance from her rich city cousins. Upon arrival it is obvious that she is in an unfamiliar, dangerous world with these wealthy, pleasure-seeking people- just look at the juxtaposition of Anna's costume at the party, and the over-sized door that both greets and dwarfs her. Anna meets the cad Lennox Sanderson at said party given by her relatives, and the villain seduces the innocent girl. Lennox tricks her into a fake wedding in order to bed her. Anna is shocked to find out later the wickedness of his deeds. She returns home to her family a disgraced, pregnant single woman. She is cast aside by her relatives and her weakling baby dies. Finally, she must take to the road in search of help. On the Bartlett family farm she finds salvation, and a man that could be true to her, the idealistic dreamer son David (Richard Barthelmess). But escaping the past will prove difficult for if she is to achieve happiness in the end.

Gish is absolutely brilliant in the role of the poor, simple farm girl. She was the first truly 'modern' actress of the cinema, and she shows her talent here, running through the gamut of emotions and looking achingly torn in every beautiful close-up. No posturing like we saw from silent exotics Pola Negri or Theda Bara, Gish is truly natural. Their was no one better than her at the playing the suffering, betrayed girl in the D.W Griffith Victorian melodramas. Perhaps her position as a symbolic of Victorian purity and virtue is the reason her film career in the talkies was largely reduced. Gish still had a successful film and television career in character parts for many, many years after the induction of sound, but her silent work will always be her lasting contribution.

Richard Barthelmess, who Gish regarded as the best-looking man ever to grace the screen, gives an equally fine performance as David. He is the sweet lover we all would like to have, honest and true. The love scenes between David and Anna are tender and believable, Lillian and Richard certainly shared remarkable chemistry.

I love how D.W made this film; the filmic devices he employed. Wonderful symbolism with David stroking a white dove, another image of purity. The pastoral images bathed in natural light contrasted with the darkness of Anna's 'seduction'. The juxtaposition of the rich and poor. The light comic relief in the midst of drama. Oh, and that 'iceflow' scene.

That scene is one of the most remarkable you will find in the cinema, and it was shot entirely on location. Yes, that IS Miss Gish's freezing hand dragging in the ice, and Barthelmess WAS the one who rescued Gish from certain peril. Remember, these were the days where actors did their own stunts, so kudos all round.

This film is a true example of Victorianism. I actually studied it in-depth in school last year as a Victorian-influenced film, and it's not hard to see it's place as one. The treatment of women (unmarried mothers) is revelatory, the image of the 'seducer' figure is prominent, and the divide between the rich and poor is clearly evident. Yes, it's almost like picking up one of those hefty Victorian novels, a viewing of WDE.

It is not without it's faults, however. It's gloriously over-long and melodramatic, such was Griffith's style. Also, the moralizing can get really tedious at times. You have to appreciate the context Griffith made in this in, and Griffith's unique reputation as a film-maker to properly enjoy WDE.

It is a marvelous experience.

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Gish's Best
elchiludo-26 March 2005
As Gish once said, ".......Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomime, but something wonderfully expressive." It is that expressive ability, which in Talking Movies and still today, more than any other characteristic, defines the success of an actor or actress. As it was back then referred to as "The Look", this ability was Gish's trademark, and has never been done better by anyone. In Way Down East, she set the benchmark for this ability. In my opinion, the best work of her career. If you haven't seen it, do, and you'll wonder who in screen history can rival "Her Look".
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Flashes of Brilliance
Cineanalyst3 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Despite the major box-office success of "Way Down East", Griffith, reportedly, continued to have financial difficulties. His lack of sound money management is probably the major reason for his eventual failure in the movie industry he helped create, and it likely is much of the cause of his artistic decline, as well, which I think was beginning around this time. "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" revolutionized motion pictures severalfold--an enormous peak for a career, doubtless, but henceforth he made some lousy, derivative and prosaic films--only flashes of brilliance, like those in this film, make the remainder of his filmography worth investigating.

The $182,000 he paid for the rights to Brady, Parker and Grismer's horse-and-buggy play seemed absurd, and the melodrama itself is overly sensational and ridiculous; yet, it's impressive how Griffith's inspired direction and Lillian Gish's performance somehow manage to make that not always seem the case. Many problems remain in the film. The message of monogamy (regardless of one's standpoint on the issue), the staginess and especially the comic relief add to the already inherent disadvantages of the genre. The comic relief is unnecessary, ill placed and unfunny; it undermines much of the picture, which is overlong as a result.

As for Gish, this has to be some of her best acting. Aside from the competent and (this time) careful film-making, she is the saving grace of the picture. She is pitiful and beautiful--composing Griffith's ideal woman. She rises above the story-lines that require her to faint four times.

There's a particularly picturesque scene where Richard Berthelmess's character first admits his attraction to Gish. And, I always like when Griffith rallies against busybody gossipers. The most acclaimed sequence, however, is, of course, the film's climax, including the great ice-break scene, which has Richard Barthelmess saving Gish from death (thankfully not rape this time). It is an exceptionally well-edited and photographed dénouement--one of the more memorable and exciting moments in film history. Too bad it and the other virtues of "Way Down East" lie beside their conversely negative parts.
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Gish's glory outweighs Griffith's gaffes
mlevans2 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
One of D.W. Griffith's last big commercial successes, 'Way Down East' represents much that was good in Griffith's directorial style and much that was wanting in it. Overall, it is a very solid movie and leaves the viewer satisfied in the end. It is certainly not the ideal film to show someone who has never watched a silent feature film, however.

Anyone who has studied film history knows about the famous ice flow scene in which Lillian Gish put herself at tremendous risk in real-life blizzard conditions. This is the climax, but it comes only after a long and occasionally dragging journey.

The lovely Ms. Gish plays Anna Moore, a naïve small town girl, tricked into a fake marriage by notorious womanizing playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). Finding out about the sham only after telling Sanderson she is pregnant, she is abandoned and later evicted after both her mother and the baby die. Her past later catches up with her after she has established herself as a beloved maid in the Bartlett household, where son David (matinee idol Richard Barthlemess) is in love with her. It is when her past is revealed and Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) throws her out into a blizzard that the famed ice flow sequence takes place.

There are some faults in 'Way Down East.' It is long – probably a bit longer than it needs to be. Plenty of time is spent in establishing the various characters, both major and minor, and the locales. There are a few spots where things seem to drag a bit. Of course Griffith strongly moralizes as usual, too. One fault that some critics have flagged that I do not necessarily agree with is Griffith's insertion of comedy relief. In many films of the era this did indeed mar films. In 'Way Down East,' though, the bumbling minor characters have a charm of their own and are naturally enough melded into the story that their actions do not seem to be at all intrusive to me. Vivia Ogden as the gossip Martha Perkins is quite good and her interaction with Seth Holcomb (Porter Strong), a goateed old goat who always seems to be at the Bartletts, is enjoyable. We are told Seth has followed her around for 20 years and she doesn't seem to mind his attention. Shy 'Professor' Creighton Hale is amusing at times, flirting clumsily with both Martha and the squire's niece Kate (Mary Hay.) Perhaps rolly polly hired hand Hi Holler (Edgar Nelson) could be dispensed with, but his screen time is limited and not a distraction. The music is at times heavy handed, but is appropriate in mood setting – including the forays into comic relief.

True, this is a potboiler melodrama with some heavy-handed Griffith preaching. Still, it also includes Griffith's famed build-up of intensity and speed as the climax is neared. It is also pictorially attractive, with snow-covered New England countrysides and landscapes. Also, Gish and Barthelmess never looked better. As other have noted, Gish by 1920 had fully come into her own as an actress and could make a very strong argument for being the best of all silent screen actresses.

There are other silent films much easier to sit through in their entirety. This one is worth the effort, though. Griffith, warts and all, could tell a good story.
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An old fashioned melodrama with a universal message
barhound7823 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
D.W. Griffith followed up the majestic Broken Blossoms with this epic melodrama.

The subtitle, "A Simple Story Of Plain People", tells only half the story. Way Down East is a parable with simple values told on a bravura scale. At the time of release the story Griffith offered seemed out of kilter with a society on the cusp of a decade of decadence. However, the Victorian messages of tolerance, charity, understanding and forgiveness seemed more pertinent than ever. And as much as the film is an affirmation of love, honest living and general goodness, it is also takes a swipe at the puritanical aspects of Christianity. It became one of the highest grossing films of the 1920's.

The story is one of hardship and of suffering. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a naive country girl sent to stay as a "poor relation" with her cousins in the city where she falls under the influence of a cad Lennox Sanderson (deliciously played Lowell Shermann) who sets up a false wedding and tricks the infatuated Anna into sleeping with him. Inevitably, Anna quickly falls pregnant and Sanderson absconds leaving her to face her fate alone. And it is a terrible fate. She returns home but her mother soon dies and then, in one of the films most poignant scenes, the illegitimate newborn child that will be her curse dies in her arms in a boarding house. It is soon realised that Anna has no husband and she becomes a pariah; unable to find work and told to leave her board.

She is forced to wander to find work and, finally, she stumbles across a farm owned by the puritanical Squire Bartlett. At first he turns Anna away, but his wife speaks to him of Christian scripture and they take her in. She lives a blameless, hardworking life with the Bartletts and slowly finds herself falling in love with the Bartletts son David (Richard Barthelmess) but the cross she bears prevents her from giving in to her feelings. This is only amplified when she discovers that Sanderson owns an estate adjacent to the Bartletts and he puts pressure on her to leave. However, her secret is only eventually when she is recognised by her old landlady. She is cast out into the blizzard by the Squire but not before she exposes Sanderson (who is present) as the architect of her doom. Wandering into the freezing night she finally passes out on a drifting glacier leading to one of the most exciting and jaw-dropping climaxes of Silent cinema.

Way Down East was a labour of love for Griffith. The photography is some of the finest he was to ever produce whilst he waited for the seasons to change and for nature to flourish in order to capture and represent the changing moods and emotions of his characters. Similarly, the final moments on the ice floes of the Mamaroneck river is one of the great location sequences. Gish herself (who died in 1993 aged 99) never regained full feeling in her hand from having it draped in the icy water for so long.

This film is open to accusations of being old fashioned, but I feel anybody who levels such claims would be missing the point. This is melodrama of grand proportions and it carries within it messages and morals that are universal and timeless. And when these messages are carried by an actress as mesmerising and as dignified as Lillian Gish then, as Way Down East undoubtedly proves, no amount of generational drift can render them obsolete.
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Griffith the moralist
mmmuconn3 January 2003
Warning: Spoilers

D.W. Griffith's major theme is the plight of women. In `Broken Blossoms', a title card notes that women have only two courses, marriage and prostitution, neither of which is enticing. Griffith's women, usually played by Lillian Gish, are almost entirely powerless; at any moment they can fall victim to the violent, sexual appetites of men. In `The Birth Of A Nation', a woman is chased off a cliff by a would-be rapist. In `Intolerance', only an unexpected gunshot prevents a man's wife from being sexually attacked by his boss. Griffith, despite frequently being labeled a racist, is at heart a moralist, and he intends for his films to help men sympathize with women so that they can better protect them. `Way Down East' may be the strongest case in point. It opens with the director's explicit plea for men to properly treat the opposite gender. It then introduces an unusually powerful Griffith female character, a woman with sex appeal, only to spend the next two hours demonstrating how easily even this woman can be victimized. Griffith, with the help of an extraordinary performance by Gish, succeeds in building sympathy for the girl, but by requiring that her naivete, frailty, and dependence be such a large part of her appeal, Griffith renders woman all the more powerless.

Rating: 7.5
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Not Great as Film
hcoursen16 April 2006
Gish and Barthlemess are great, though the latter is probably not on screen often enough and the former might have been on too long. At moments it seemed that Griffith was overindulging in closeups of Gish's wonderfully expressive face. The title cards are typically moralistic and tend to force the story into Griffith's allegory. The main problem though is the introduction of "comic relief." The scenes are simply not funny and needlessly strain our attention span. And if one asks -- didn't people think they were funny then? -- maybe. But the Keystone Cops, Keyton, Chaplin, and Lloyd are still funny. I was intrigued by the Gish character's affinity with Ophelia. Both young women are wronged by their lovers (though the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship is never clear). And Gish, seeing the river, receives the title-card "Frenzied -- Tortured -- The calling river." Fortunately, she does not drown in that wonderfully crosscut and gripping sequence. The only Hamlet director I know of who puts Ophelia into a winter river is Branagh in his film. Kate Winslett finds a hole in the ice in which to drown herself -- assuming she does so intentionally. One reviewer has noted the relationship between the Gish character and the typical Hardy heroine. The reviewer cites Tess, but Eustacia in Return of the Native actually drowns in a river. I also note a parallel between the Gish character and the hapless Roberta Alden of Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Although that novel did not appear until 1925, poor Roberta also drowns, pregnant and in a lake. The music of the copy I watched on TCM was lugubrious but it was fun to hear some of the songs my grandfather sang -- the recurring theme "Believe me if all those endearing young charms," along with "In the Gloaming" and "Love's Old Sweet Song."
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Absorbing film
cz63913 November 2002
This is one of my favourite silents. You can really sympathize with Lillian's character -- in fact, some of the themes are still relevant today such as the sexual double standard women face. Squire Bartlett was giving Lillian a hard time because he knew nothing of her family background when she came to him to find employment -- yet, had it been a man, the Squire would respect the man's right to privacy regarding his private life.

Lillian's acting is great. To me the true judgement of a silent film's effectiveness is the ability to stir up emotions in viewers just by watching the actor's face and body movements. Lillian achieves this beautifully. I think if this were a talkie the effect would have been less.

Overall, this is a great film but a bit long in some parts. For example, that Perkins woman (with the ringlets) was quite annoying and the film sometimes focused a little too much on her antics. I give it a 9 out of 10.
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Another Epic Drama from D.W.
iquine27 August 2017
Warning: Spoilers
(Flash Review)

One thing I learned was that the "why did the chicken cross the road" joke is at least 96 years old as it was used in this film. Ha! On to more important points. The underlying theme of this film is to treat women well, marriage is important and sacred so don't cheat. The sprawling tale begins with a poor country girl who travels to the big city in hopes of improving their financial situation. A wealthy man, with a fondness for 'the ladies', becomes smitten with her and the only way he can 'have' her is to marry her. So he tricks her into a false marriage and she later has his child. Later that story point will be a crux that drives drama to the end. Really good acting, good pacing (dragged at times: 2:45 runtime) and a long but intricate and interesting story. I didn't know this til after but the ending is one of the most famous cinematic moments of the silent era. Not really a spoiler but there was a long rescue on REAL ice chunks actually flowing down a brisk river. No special effects, no stunt doubles. The actual actors were jumping on frozen ice sheets that were breaking away and heading down a rapids! Occasionally falling in and getting back out. The man actually carried a woman while hopping like a frog from ice sheet to ice sheet. It was very tense because it was real. Amazing and thrilling.
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Overly long, but with great acting and a solid story
christopherhearns5 January 2017
Warning: Spoilers
The film is overly long by at least a half hour, maybe even an hour. It drags. There are scenes with little or no merit. Subplots that distract the viewer.

However, Gish's acting is superb. Her expressions carry us through the story. She provides us with the necessary character to hook onto and feel sympathy for. And, to be clear, Anna is a very interesting character.

Charlotte Blair Parker's story, while I may disagree at times with the treatment, is fantastic. She weaves together a number of elements with some skill.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the, what appears to me to be, rather dangerous stunt work performed by the leads.

Will it drag? Yes. But stick with it regardless for the good parts.
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I Loved The Film, But Really, D.W.!
overseer-331 January 2004
Way Down East is a great film, a classic of the silent era. Other reviewers have brought out the main characteristics of the film and its plot, so I won't bother, but I must add that I found myself shaking my head and smiling incredulously at D.W. Griffith's preaching via the title cards about the hurt and pain that unfaithfulness can bring. No one can refute that fact, but in this particular movie D.W.'s moralizing was completely hypocritical, since at the time the film was made (1920) he was having an affair with the actress Carol Dempster, and his own wife was estranged from him.

The film would have worked out just as well, and indeed have been better and smoother, without the mini-sermons in his title cards warning against infidelity. If you are a director who lives a moral life, by all means, preach to the audience. But hold the lectures if you yourself are not practicing the morality you preach.

I give Way Down East a 9 out of 10. Without the moralizing in the title cards I would have given it a straight 10.
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Pretty Good Melodrama Made Memorable By A Tremendous Climax
Snow Leopard13 September 2001
What would otherwise be a pretty good, if old-fashioned, melodrama is made memorable by a climax that still holds up decades later as one of the most exciting scenes on film. The movie as a whole is imperfect - it's a bit too long, and is occasionally preachy - but it fits together well, and is a deserving classic of the silent film era.

The story is openly moralistic, and would not have worked without good characters and acting. Lillian Gish is deservedly remembered for her role, but Lowell Sherman is also important as the oily Sanderson - his understated performance makes his villainy more effective, and balances out the parts of the movie that are more heavy-handed (the title cards, in particular, leave no doubt as to how the director feels). The story ends up working pretty well in the context of its era.

What really stands out, of course, is its terrific climax on the river, still justifiably praised after all these years. Carefully conceived and beautifully photographed, it is a most effective way to wind up the story. The riveting drama and the stark beauty of the scenery make a great combination that you won't forget.

This would have been even better if it had been maybe 30 minutes shorter. Some scenes go on longer than necessary, and there is a lot of filler material about the townspeople - mildly amusing, and comic relief from a heavy story, but the comedy is not exactly of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin quality, and a bit less would have been better. Still, the majority of the time the film does keep your attention.

"Way Down East" is a classic in spite of its flaws, one that every silent film fan will want to see. And it also would be worth watching for the climactic sequence alone, for anyone who appreciates quality cinema.
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excellent and lengthy silent, brilliantly showcasing Miss Gish
didi-57 June 2009
This film has a great reputation as one of the classics of the silent cinema - starring Lillian Gish as Anna, a simple soul from a poor family, but with rich relations; Richard Barthelmess as David, the son of a country Squire; and Lowell Sherman as Sanderson, an adventurer.

Does it deserve its reputation? Well, Lillian Gish was certainly an excellent actress, very natural and expressive, and while the film drags a bit in places (and has some comedy scenes which really don't belong), it does have one or two places where the emotion of what's happening on screen reaches across the distance of nearly ninety years and makes the film work very well.

Beautifully shot, especially the final scenes out on the river as the ice thaws, this is perhaps DW Griffith's best film - without the dubious racist leanings of Birth of a Nation or the OTT leanings of Intolerance. 'Way Down East', from a stage play, is an excellent film - yes, it is perhaps overly moralistic and more than a bit Victorian in its tone, but it still works well.
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One of the Best Endings in Film
wes-connors2 December 2007
Lillian Gish (as Anna Moore) lives with her poor mother in Greenville, a remote New England village. A sore need for money demands Ms. Gish leave for Boston, to appeal to some wealthy relatives, the Tremonts. Richard Barthelmess (as David Bartlett) lives elsewhere; "though of plain stock, he has been tutored by poets and visions wide as the world." In the city, Gish meets Lowell Sherman (as Lennox Sanderson). Mr. Sherman's hobby is "ladies, Ladies, LADIES!"; specifically, he is interested in the sexual conquest of virginal young women. Gish's delicate beauty is "a whip to Sherman's jaded appetite"; and, she innocently enters his clutches. Sherman tricks Gish into a mock marriage, and leaves her pregnant…

Deceptively subtitled "A Simple Story of Plain People"; possibly, director D.W. Griffith was seeking to enhance his film's dramatic twists and turns; since, while Gish's "Anna" could be considered of "plain" stock, what happens her could not be called "simple". This film reunites Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, after the successful "Broken Blossoms" (1919); their "Way Down East" performances are also stunning, though Barthelmess has less to do this time around. The spectacular ending is still riveting after all these years; but, it works best after you've seen the preceding story of degradation and love.

The flaw in "Way Down East" may be Griffith's overindulgence in ludicrous "slapstick"-type humor; this is most explicit in Edgar Nelson's "Hi Holler" character, which really lays an egg. The silliness also rears its ugly head on Creighton Hale's occasionally cow-licked crown. Neither "True Heart Susie" (1919) nor "The Greatest Question" (1919) veered so wildly into this form of lunacy. But, in the end, these indulgences cannot diminish the great performances, and spectacular ending of "Way Down East". The "great ice-break" is absolutely indispensable.

********** Way Down East (9/3/20) D.W. Griffith ~ Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Creighton Hale
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Little naive young country girl goes to the big town.
Boba_Fett11381 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
When the young country girl Anna Moore, played by early big movie star Lillian Gish, for the first time goes to the big 'moder'n town, things go from bad to worse for her. She gets tricked into a fake marriage, gets pregnant, her fake husband leaves her, the baby dies, in other words, this is a melodramatic movie alright.

Lillian Gish definitely shines in this movie. I'm not her biggest fan, guess I'm more of a Mae Marsh person but I have to admit that she was totally great in this movie. The movie is filled with many more great and strong written and played characters, with also especially some great roles from Richard Barthelmess and Creighton Hale.

It was surprising to see how actually humor filled this movie was, despite its melodramatic undertone and story. D.W. Griffith also had comical moments in it but this movie is almost a comedy at times. Especially the middle is mostly filled purely with humor. Quite in contrast with the melodramatic beginning and spectacular ending. It certainly goes at the expense of the drama at times.

It's a well written movie, in which always something is happening. Especially the drama gets well developed and always keep things close to home, with real sensible emotions and feelings. It keeps both the characters and emotions always real, even when they're being over-the-top. It's also one of the many reasons why the ending works out so well.

Definitely true that the last 20 minutes, or so, are the reason why this is an absolute classic and memorable movie. The breaking ice sequence, with a drifting Lillian Gish heading towards a waterfall is probably better known than the actual movie itself.

The movie is great looking visually, with its sets and costumes but also with its camera-work and environments. The movie has some good looking establishment-shots, set in the beautiful nature.

Not among D.W. Griffith's best works but in 1920 perspective this is an absolutely brilliant- and also really enjoyable movie, nevertheless.


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Trivia about extra in cast
itsfritz1 October 2006
Louise Lawson, an extra in this film, was murdered in New York City in 1924. Her killing, which remains unsolved, was one of two "Butterfly Murders" (the other was Broadway actress Dot King) tied to alleged blackmail plots.

It has been speculated that Lawson and King were involved with underworld figures who attempted to extort payments from the women's wealthy, married lovers.

Lawson was a young woman from Texas who came to New York and was a popular performer for the Zigfield Follies until she made her one and only movie appearance in the 1920 version of Way Down East. For two days work as an extra, she earned $20.

Lawson was found tied up in her bed and had been strangled with one of her scarves. The investigation into her death revealed that while she earned $75 per week as a performer in the Follies, she was routinely depositing several hundred dollars each week -- far in excess of anything she could have earned as an actress or performer.

Lawson is buried her hometown of Walnut Springs, Texas.

King never made any movies, but appeared in "Broadway Brevities of 1920" which played 105 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. She was found dead in her apartment on West 57th Street. Her killer attempted to strangle her, but she was killed by an overdose of chloroform.

Sources: "Which was the real Louise Lawson?" Syracuse Herald, March 16, 1924. "Mystery Beauty who earned $245 and spent $100,000" International Features Syndicate, March 1924.

Both sources include a photograph of "Way Down East" featuring Lawson as an extra in the background while Lillian Gish dances.
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