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Way Down East (1920)

Passed | | Drama, Romance | 3 September 1920 (USA)
A naive country girl is tricked into a sham marriage by a wealthy womanizer, then must rebuild her life despite the taint of having borne a child out of wedlock.


D.W. Griffith


Lottie Blair Parker (from the play by), William A. Brady (play) (as Wm. A. Brady) | 2 more credits »




Cast overview, first billed only:
Lillian Gish ... Anna Moore
Richard Barthelmess ... David Bartlett
Mrs. David Landau Mrs. David Landau ... Anna Moore's Mother
Lowell Sherman ... Lennox Sanderson
Burr McIntosh ... Squire Bartlett
Josephine Bernard Josephine Bernard ... Mrs. Emma Tremont
Mrs. Morgan Belmont Mrs. Morgan Belmont ... Diana Tremont
Patricia Fruen Patricia Fruen ... Diana's Sister
Florence Short Florence Short ... The Eccentric Aunt
Kate Bruce ... Mrs. Bartlett
Vivia Ogden Vivia Ogden ... Martha Perkins
Porter Strong Porter Strong ... Seth Holcomb
George Neville George Neville ... Constable Rube Whipple
Edgar Nelson ... Hi Holler
Mary Hay Mary Hay ... Kate Brewster - the Squire's Niece
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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 <tony.fontana@spacebbs.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


A NEW ART COMBINING DRAMA. PAINTING, POETRY AND MUSIC (Print Ad-Pittsburgh Press, ((Pittsburgh, Penna.)) 17 December 1920) See more »


Drama | Romance


Passed | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


When this film was released in 1920 in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania censorship board made over sixty cuts to the film before its release including the scenes of Gish's mock marriage, the honeymoon, maternity, and childbirth. "Imagine the surprise of Pennsylvania fans," wrote Photoplay in 1920, "when the baby, utterly unexplained, burst upon the scene just before its death." See more »


Around the 1 hr and 38 minute mark, Martha visits the Squire and encounters Anna at the door. She enters the room and gives Anna a disapproving look. Behind Anna is the door. When the view changes to a long shot of the room, Martha is still engaging with Anna, but now both are to the left of the door instead of standing in front of it. See more »


Title Card: 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.
See more »

User Reviews

"Visions wide as the world"
1 January 2010 | by Steffi_PSee all my reviews

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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Release Date:

3 September 1920 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Mädchenlos See more »


Box Office


$700,000 (estimated)
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Company Credits

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Technical Specs


| (1931 re-release) | (Alpha Video)

Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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