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The callous rich, portrayed by Lennox, think only of their own pleasure. Anna is but a poor country girl whom Lennox tricks into a fake wedding. She believes that it is true, but secret, while he has his way with her. When she is pregnant, he leaves her and she must have the baby, named Trust Lennox, on her own. When the baby dies she wanders until she gets a job with Squire Bartlett. David falls for her, but she rejects him due to her past and then Lennox shows up lusting for Kate. Seeing Anna, he tries to get her to leave, but she doesn't, and she tells no one about his past. When Squire Bartlett learns of her past from Martha, the town gossip, he tosses Anna out in a snow storm. But before she goes, she fingers the respected Lennox, as the father of her dead baby and the spoiler of herself. Written by
Tony Fontana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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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