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.