Way Down East is a very long silent melodrama. Now when the word melodrama is associated with a film today that usually means it is way too overdramatic and silly. There are some scenes that are overdramatic but are acted phenomenally by Lillian Gish.
Anna Moore (Gish) is a poor country girl who goes to live with some rich relatives in the city. Her cousins do not like her very much because she is very pretty and they try to hide her especially from a rich young man named Lennox Sanderson. Lennox “Has three specialities—ladies—Ladies – and LADIES.” Unfortunately all the cousins’ hiding of Anna goes in vain when Lennox lays on her. He sees her as innocent and naïve- perfect for his next conquest.
Anna believes that Lennox really loves her when he proposes to marry her. He sets up a fake wedding and she is not to tell anyone about it. A while later she tells him that she is having a baby and he tells her about the wedding. Lennox also says that he will give her money to go away. Anna does eventually go away when her mother dies to a small town. In the town she has her baby but the baby gets sick and dies. The landlady kicks Anna out because she does not have a husband.
Anna wanders to a small town where gets a job with a man named Squire Bartlett. He thinks Anna is a loose woman because she just wandered into the town. Bartlett’s son David falls in love with Anna but she will not let him fall for her because of what happened to her and she does not want his reputation ruined by being with her. Also it just so happens that Lennox has a house nearby. When they see each other for the first time he tells her to leave but she will not.
The former landlady comes into town. She sees Anna and unfortunately repeats her story to the town gossip. The gossip goes back to Squire Bartlett and tells him the whole story. He wants to kick Anna out that night but his wife tells him to get the truth first. He does go the next day to the landlady and kicks Anna out that night. Before she goes she says yes what happened to her is true but before she goes she gives Lennox away as the perpetrator. David comes back just as this event happens. At first he is upset but when Anna gives up Lennox he runs over to fight the man. Anna leaves during a bad snow storm and loses her way. David goes to look for her.
When David finds Anna she has collapsed on a piece of ice floating down river towards a fall. In a thrilling and suspenseful conclusion David saves Anna and she is forgiven by his father and the community.
Lillian Gish was phenomenal. That is the only way to describe her in this film. In the beginning you want her to have a fun life and meet people to get out of her country ways; when she meets Lennox you know his intentions are wrong so you want her to realize that before it is too late; when she gets in trouble you feel terrible and know things are not going to be easy for her; when her baby dies you want to cry with her; when the town finds out her secret you want to save her. Gish’s acting for the silent era is perfect she does not do histrionic gestures she reacts just as a normal person would have reacted (ok maybe not after all this is a movie). I could not get over how adorable her face was. She was not pretty or gorgeous she was adorable but with this great expressive eyes. Like her good friend Mary Pickford she expressed so much with just her eyes. I had seen Gish before in Night of the Hunter when she was older and obviously it was not a silent film. It was great to finally see her in a silent film.
Richard Barthelmess was great as David. David was such a nice character. Barthelmess was a good actor too he did not overact.
This was the first time I have ever seen a DW Griffith film. I fully understand why the man was ahead of his time and a complete genius. His shots were beautiful especially the end on the ice floats.
My favorite scenes were the most heartbreaking ones: as after the doctor tells Anna her baby is very sick someone mentions that he is not baptized but a priest cannot get to him until morning. Anna knows the baby is not going to make it through the night so she looks in the Bible and baptizes him herself. I cannot even explain the look of sadness on her face as she does this just thinking about it makes me want to cry a little. The other scene is when she is living in the village and she sees a little baby. She bends down taking the baby’s hand and kissing it as the baby plays with her scarf. Again it is the look of sadness on her face as she thinks of her own baby.
Looking at this film with modern eyes can be very frustrating. Today if a woman gets pregnant and she is not married there is no social stigma. Some people who are traditional may think so but she does not have to wear a scarlet letter. Way Down East was made in 1920 when this topic was outrageously taboo in real life and a woman did carry a social stigma especially with the religious. I felt terrible for Anna and so angry at the people who looked down upon and kicked her out ESPECIALLY because the whole situation was not her fault. Damn Lennox tricked her!! There is a scene towards the end when Lennox says something about people finding out about her and she says the same thing to him but he responds that it is different for him because he is a man. Dear God I could have punched my computer screen! But that kind of think does still hold a bit true men can go out with so many girls and not be called anything but a woman who sleeps with however many guys and she is labeled a whore.
Way Down East is a great film. The one and only complaint that I have about it is that it is way too long. At two hours and twenty-five minutes it could have been cut down an hour. There are so many subplots that at times they take away from the main story. I really did not care if this one guy was chasing down the town gossip or if some people were standing around the post office in the middle of the winter or about a dance. Besides the length the story is great and the characters are very good. The performance by the entire cast was fantastic. Way Down East is considered one of the greatest silent films and should be seen at least once by film buffs.