(director/writer: D.W. Griffith; screenwriter: from the play by William A. Brady & Joseph R. Grismer; cinematographer: G.W. Bitzer/Charles Downs/Hendrik Sartov; editor: James Smith/Rose Smith; music: Louis Silvers; cast: Lillian Gish (Anna Moore), Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett), Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson), Burr McIntosh (Squire Bartlett), Kate Bruce (Mother Bartlett), Mary Hay (Kate, the Squire’s niece), Josephine Bernard (Mrs. Tremont), Mrs. David Landau (Anna Moore’s mother), Creighton Hale (The Professor), George Neville (The Constable), Florence Short (Eccentric Rich Aunt), Vivia Ogden (Martha Perkins), Porter Strong (Seth Holcomb); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: D.W. Griffith; Kino Video; 1920-silent)

“Old-fashioned bucolic soap opera doesn’t translate well to modern-times.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

D.W. Griffith (“The Birth of a Nation”/”Broken Blossoms”/”Orphans of the Storm”) paid $175,000 for the screen rights to the Lottie Blair Parker Victorian 1890 stage play Way Down East, performed during the late 1800s, that was considered dated even in 1920 and somehow turned it into an acceptable tearjerker melodrama. Credit the strong emotional performances of the diminutive Lillian Gish, the silent screen’s shining star, as the wronged innocent country bumpkin with saving the day. Nevertheless, this old-fashioned bucolic soap opera doesn’t translate well to modern-times. It’s quintessential Griffith melodrama, a mix of opposing forces between those favoring Bible morality and the wealthy hedonists who mock God with their amorality, but the corn grows too high this time around and it has an irritating moralistic Bible flavor in supporting monogamy.

It tells the story of the impoverished New England farm girl Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), who lives with her elderly mother (Mrs. David Landau). Mom sends her to stay with her wealthy but snobbish Aunt Emma Tremont (Josephine Bernard) in a neighboring village, who has two unmarried daughters. There she meets idler rich boy womanizer Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who seduces the naive girl by a mock marriage that she’s told to keep a secret. When announcing that she’s pregnant, the cad gives her the boot and tells her the marriage was a farce. The poor girl staggers down the road to ruin. Her baby dies, and later her mother passes away. The abandoned orphan girl finds employment on the God-fearing Bartlett farm, run by the stern puritanical Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) and his gentle Scripture reading wife (Kate Bruce). Their well-educated son David (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with the servant girl, but she’s a shamed woman who only wishes to keep her secret. To make matters worse, the Bartlett neighbor is the villainous Lennox. Upon his visits, he’s treated as an honored guest.

The climax delivers a happy ending. It has the angry Squire Bartlett finding out about Anna’s baby without a husband and he kicks the supposedly loose woman out in the middle of a winter blizzard. Anna’s trapped on a slab of the river’s ice floe heading over a waterfall, only to be rescued by a concerned David (it was shot during summer in a mill dam in Farmington, Connecticut). The film’s most exciting scene was made without any special effects, and is the only thing about the film worth remembering.

Way Down East Poster