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Slow, Stately, and Magnificent
drednm2 January 2008
WAY DOWN EAST was an old-fashioned melodrama even in 1920 when D.W. Griffith decided to film it. It's the kind of story that leaves itself open for spoofing, but Griffith approaches the story of a "mock marriage" and its aftermath with earnestness and a great eye for detail.

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.
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Fabulous and Frustrating
Randy Bigham17 January 2005
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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A Simple Story Of Plain People
Ron Oliver28 September 2004
A young woman, after being lured into a false marriage, finds the chance for happiness on a friendly farm WAY DOWN EAST.

David Wark Griffith, the Father of American Cinema, had his last great financial blockbuster with this highly sentimentalized silent melodrama. Always anxious to promote decency & morality with his epic films, Griffith here exposes & castigates male brutality against the weaker female, making this a stark portrayal of Good versus Evil as he follows the fortunes and misfortunes of his long-suffering heroine.

Bird-like & fragile, Lillian Gish takes the brunt of the plot upon her young shoulders. To say that she performs magnificently is only to state the expected. The wealth of emotions stealing across her lovely face give expression to her every thought, as her character struggles to maintain her equilibrium against the onslaughts hurled against her.

Richard Barthelmess portrays the quietly heroic farm lad who becomes paladin for Miss Gish during her tribulations while abiding in his home. His stalwart decency is in strong contrast to the villainy of Lowell Sherman, the rich roué whose misdeeds nearly destroy Lillian.

Griffith's broad canvas allows for detailed portraits by a fine supporting cast: a pharisaical squire (Burr McIntosh), his saintly wife (Kate Bruce), a butterfly-chasing professor (Creighton Hale), a dour landlady (Emily Fitzroy), a lazy, good-natured constable (George Neville), a jolly, oafish farmhand (Edgar Nelson), and a gossiping spinster (Vivia Ogden).

The film climaxes with one of the most famous sequences in all of Silent Cinema: Barthelmess' rescue of Miss Gish as she lies unconscious on an ice floe, speeding towards a tremendous waterfall. Filmed on Long Island in the dead of Winter, the performers were in real peril. These scenes still pack a punch and are worthy testimony to Griffith's genius.

Special mention should be made of the cinematography of G. W. Bitzer, Griffith's invaluable cameraman. His beautiful photography softly illumines both the tender scenes and the bucolic vistas, giving them the quality of aged snapshots in a cherished family album.
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Still a Gripping, Absorbingly Real Drama After 80 Plus Years
Ralph Michael Stein28 March 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Today's films dissect with the latest pseudotheories and experimental science every aspect of human relationships. Technology run wild turns the screen into an advertisement for a future we ought to be wary about. How refreshing it is to stop the clock and enjoy D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East." A friend who loves silent film lent me her tape last night and I've seen it twice, putting aside for four hours everything from nonsense at work to the grim reality of war in Iraq.

D. W. Griffith's name comes to the fore most frequently, and not necessarily in a complimentary light, with often polarized discussions of America's history as depicted in movies, especially with regard to race. "Way Down East" doesn't touch on historical themes but he does candidly and openly explore moral issues that in his time were either evaded or resolved with harsh condemnation of those who strayed from the path of religious dogma-inspired righteousness.

The wonderful Lillian Gish is Anna Moore, who loses her mother and seeks, being bereft of money, shelter from rich relatives. A very familiar story (most recently brought to the screen in the latest adaptation of Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby"). Taken in, albeit grudgingly, by a rich aunt and treated with lighthearted contempt by two sisters, she meets Lennox Sanderson, played by Lowell Sherman. Sanderson is a cad, a seducer of innocent virgins. Rather than the sneering evildoer so familiar to devotees of silent films, Sherman invests his role with a mixture of cruel cunning and stupid incomprehension of the harm he causes to Anna. He stages a mock wedding to get her into bed and subsequently abandons the pregnant Anna. The depth of his acting starkly brings the shallowness of his character to life.

After losing her baby, Anna is taken in as a house servant by a sanctimonious farmer who blindly adheres to the literal letter of biblical law. Of course his wife is a near saint. What next? A love interest for Anna which she spurns, believing herself unworthy of a good man's attention. Richard Barthelmess, who brings a manly but compassionate character to life, chases Anna demurely and respectfully from parlor room to - ice flow adrift in a raging torrent of water approaching (music increases in tempo) a waterfall.

Anna's peril on the ice is one of the most famous silent film scenes and almost eighty-five years later it still works. Largely that's because no one - no one - could film a scene like that as did D.W. Griffith.

Incidentally, in a barnyard dance scene is a very young Norma Shearer.

A remarkable film that holds a viewer's rapt attention (mine, at least) and which proves both the sometimes superfluity of words to tell a story and the lasting legacy D.W. Griffith gave us.

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Gish brings it home
Rainsford5512 October 2001
Lillian Gish and fellow co-stars really bring home this great drama. It's interesting and exciting and wonderful to watch. Surely a legend of the 20th Century, Mr Griffith outdid himself with this successful film and Gish can only be praised for a great performance. Her pain and despair can be felt in the scene's where she realises she's been 'betrayed' and she nurses her child while he slips from this world. It's acting at it's finest for no words were necessary, it's all in 'the look'. Certainly 10 out of 10, but if I were to make one comment about this film in the negative, it would be it's length. Perhaps 15 to 20 minutes too long. Otherwise it's majestic.
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Gish Suffers Nobly
evanston_dad3 January 2006
"Way Down East" will probably be a hard pill for many filmgoers to swallow, as it's a silent and very long, but I would recommend you give it a try, as it's also pretty entertaining.

Lillian Gish gets put through her melodramatic paces by the granddaddy of modern cinema, D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a master at building his movies up to intolerably exciting finales, and this film is no exception. A classic set piece puts Gish trying to escape across a frozen river, jumping from one drifting block of ice to the next. And consider that this was in the day before special effects, and it's even quite possible that Gish did all of the stunts herself.

A slice of early cinema that goes down easily if you give it the chance.

Grade: A-
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Gish's Best
Dave Kujawski6 March 2005
As Gish once said, ".......Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomime, but something wonderfully expressive." It is that expressive ability, which in Talking Movies and still today, more than any other characteristic, defines the success of an actor or actress. As it was back then referred to as "The Look", this ability was Gish's trademark, and has never been done better by anyone. In Way Down East, she set the benchmark for this ability. In my opinion, the best work of her career. If you haven't seen it, do, and you'll wonder who in screen history can rival "Her Look".
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Griffith knew his stuff
rensamuels4 December 2006
I just finished watching Way Down East. It was extremely powerful and moving. Gish is at her best, and while she may take getting used to if you've never seen her before, because she is a bit twittery, she is also a unique beauty with enormously expressive eyes and nervous mannerisms that make her perfect in this role as the poor innocent done wrong by the sophisticated older man. Like they say, the story's as old as the hills, and I was surprised but pleased at the happy ending, considering she had a baby out of wedlock--usually women were punished in the old films, even if it wasn't their fault. Little things like Richard Barthelmess petting a pigeon on the head, blossoms bouncing gently in the breeze, the play of light at sunset through Gish's hair as she stands by the river.... There's an appreciation of the beauty of nature and the gentle aspects of the human soul that's not much seen anymore. Just watching the men haying in the fields, the old barn dance, a horse and sled heading down a long avenue of tall trees is a pleasure, a record of days gone by that we don't get much chance to see anywhere else. Of course Gish floating down the river on the ice in the denouement is a classic. I highly recommend this film to any sensitive movie-lover.
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An old fashioned melodrama with a universal message
barhound7823 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
D.W. Griffith followed up the majestic Broken Blossoms with this epic melodrama.

The subtitle, "A Simple Story Of Plain People", tells only half the story. Way Down East is a parable with simple values told on a bravura scale. At the time of release the story Griffith offered seemed out of kilter with a society on the cusp of a decade of decadence. However, the Victorian messages of tolerance, charity, understanding and forgiveness seemed more pertinent than ever. And as much as the film is an affirmation of love, honest living and general goodness, it is also takes a swipe at the puritanical aspects of Christianity. It became one of the highest grossing films of the 1920's.

The story is one of hardship and of suffering. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a naive country girl sent to stay as a "poor relation" with her cousins in the city where she falls under the influence of a cad Lennox Sanderson (deliciously played Lowell Shermann) who sets up a false wedding and tricks the infatuated Anna into sleeping with him. Inevitably, Anna quickly falls pregnant and Sanderson absconds leaving her to face her fate alone. And it is a terrible fate. She returns home but her mother soon dies and then, in one of the films most poignant scenes, the illegitimate newborn child that will be her curse dies in her arms in a boarding house. It is soon realised that Anna has no husband and she becomes a pariah; unable to find work and told to leave her board.

She is forced to wander to find work and, finally, she stumbles across a farm owned by the puritanical Squire Bartlett. At first he turns Anna away, but his wife speaks to him of Christian scripture and they take her in. She lives a blameless, hardworking life with the Bartletts and slowly finds herself falling in love with the Bartletts son David (Richard Barthelmess) but the cross she bears prevents her from giving in to her feelings. This is only amplified when she discovers that Sanderson owns an estate adjacent to the Bartletts and he puts pressure on her to leave. However, her secret is only eventually when she is recognised by her old landlady. She is cast out into the blizzard by the Squire but not before she exposes Sanderson (who is present) as the architect of her doom. Wandering into the freezing night she finally passes out on a drifting glacier leading to one of the most exciting and jaw-dropping climaxes of Silent cinema.

Way Down East was a labour of love for Griffith. The photography is some of the finest he was to ever produce whilst he waited for the seasons to change and for nature to flourish in order to capture and represent the changing moods and emotions of his characters. Similarly, the final moments on the ice floes of the Mamaroneck river is one of the great location sequences. Gish herself (who died in 1993 aged 99) never regained full feeling in her hand from having it draped in the icy water for so long.

This film is open to accusations of being old fashioned, but I feel anybody who levels such claims would be missing the point. This is melodrama of grand proportions and it carries within it messages and morals that are universal and timeless. And when these messages are carried by an actress as mesmerising and as dignified as Lillian Gish then, as Way Down East undoubtedly proves, no amount of generational drift can render them obsolete.
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Classic D.W Griffith Melodrama With Gish
Jem Odewahn25 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
D.W Griffith's outstanding 'Way Down East' is one of the best films produced by America in the silent era. It is a monument to epic film-making, and the talents of it's director, Griffith, and it's star, the great Lillian Gish.

In a plot very similar to that of Thomas Hardy's famous novel 'Tess Of The D'Urbervilles', Gish portrays Anna Moore, a poor farm girl who must leave her relatives in search of assistance from her rich city cousins. Upon arrival it is obvious that she is in an unfamiliar, dangerous world with these wealthy, pleasure-seeking people- just look at the juxtaposition of Anna's costume at the party, and the over-sized door that both greets and dwarfs her. Anna meets the cad Lennox Sanderson at said party given by her relatives, and the villain seduces the innocent girl. Lennox tricks her into a fake wedding in order to bed her. Anna is shocked to find out later the wickedness of his deeds. She returns home to her family a disgraced, pregnant single woman. She is cast aside by her relatives and her weakling baby dies. Finally, she must take to the road in search of help. On the Bartlett family farm she finds salvation, and a man that could be true to her, the idealistic dreamer son David (Richard Barthelmess). But escaping the past will prove difficult for if she is to achieve happiness in the end.

Gish is absolutely brilliant in the role of the poor, simple farm girl. She was the first truly 'modern' actress of the cinema, and she shows her talent here, running through the gamut of emotions and looking achingly torn in every beautiful close-up. No posturing like we saw from silent exotics Pola Negri or Theda Bara, Gish is truly natural. Their was no one better than her at the playing the suffering, betrayed girl in the D.W Griffith Victorian melodramas. Perhaps her position as a symbolic of Victorian purity and virtue is the reason her film career in the talkies was largely reduced. Gish still had a successful film and television career in character parts for many, many years after the induction of sound, but her silent work will always be her lasting contribution.

Richard Barthelmess, who Gish regarded as the best-looking man ever to grace the screen, gives an equally fine performance as David. He is the sweet lover we all would like to have, honest and true. The love scenes between David and Anna are tender and believable, Lillian and Richard certainly shared remarkable chemistry.

I love how D.W made this film; the filmic devices he employed. Wonderful symbolism with David stroking a white dove, another image of purity. The pastoral images bathed in natural light contrasted with the darkness of Anna's 'seduction'. The juxtaposition of the rich and poor. The light comic relief in the midst of drama. Oh, and that 'iceflow' scene.

That scene is one of the most remarkable you will find in the cinema, and it was shot entirely on location. Yes, that IS Miss Gish's freezing hand dragging in the ice, and Barthelmess WAS the one who rescued Gish from certain peril. Remember, these were the days where actors did their own stunts, so kudos all round.

This film is a true example of Victorianism. I actually studied it in-depth in school last year as a Victorian-influenced film, and it's not hard to see it's place as one. The treatment of women (unmarried mothers) is revelatory, the image of the 'seducer' figure is prominent, and the divide between the rich and poor is clearly evident. Yes, it's almost like picking up one of those hefty Victorian novels, a viewing of WDE.

It is not without it's faults, however. It's gloriously over-long and melodramatic, such was Griffith's style. Also, the moralizing can get really tedious at times. You have to appreciate the context Griffith made in this in, and Griffith's unique reputation as a film-maker to properly enjoy WDE.

It is a marvelous experience.

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Flashes of Brilliance
Cineanalyst3 September 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Despite the major box-office success of "Way Down East", Griffith, reportedly, continued to have financial difficulties. His lack of sound money management is probably the major reason for his eventual failure in the movie industry he helped create, and it likely is much of the cause of his artistic decline, as well, which I think was beginning around this time. "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance" revolutionized motion pictures severalfold--an enormous peak for a career, doubtless, but henceforth he made some lousy, derivative and prosaic films--only flashes of brilliance, like those in this film, make the remainder of his filmography worth investigating.

The $182,000 he paid for the rights to Brady, Parker and Grismer's horse-and-buggy play seemed absurd, and the melodrama itself is overly sensational and ridiculous; yet, it's impressive how Griffith's inspired direction and Lillian Gish's performance somehow manage to make that not always seem the case. Many problems remain in the film. The message of monogamy (regardless of one's standpoint on the issue), the staginess and especially the comic relief add to the already inherit disadvantages of the genre. The comic relief is unnecessary, ill placed and unfunny; it undermines much of the picture, which is overlong as a result.

As for Gish, this has to be some of her best acting. Aside from the competent and (this time) careful film-making, she is the saving grace of the picture. She is pitiful and beautiful--composing Griffith's ideal woman. She rises above the story-lines that require her to faint four times.

There's a particularly picturesque scene where Richard Berthelmess's character first admits his attraction to Gish. And, I always like when Griffith rallies against busybody gossipers. The most acclaimed sequence, however, is, of course, the film's climax, including the great ice-break scene, which has Richard Barthelmess saving Gish from death (thankfully not rape this time). It is an exceptionally well-edited and photographed dénouement--one of the more memorable and exciting moments in film history. Too bad it and the other virtues of "Way Down East" lie beside their conversely negative parts.
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Griffith the moralist
mmmuconn3 January 2003
Warning: Spoilers

D.W. Griffith's major theme is the plight of women. In `Broken Blossoms', a title card notes that women have only two courses, marriage and prostitution, neither of which is enticing. Griffith's women, usually played by Lillian Gish, are almost entirely powerless; at any moment they can fall victim to the violent, sexual appetites of men. In `The Birth Of A Nation', a woman is chased off a cliff by a would-be rapist. In `Intolerance', only an unexpected gunshot prevents a man's wife from being sexually attacked by his boss. Griffith, despite frequently being labeled a racist, is at heart a moralist, and he intends for his films to help men sympathize with women so that they can better protect them. `Way Down East' may be the strongest case in point. It opens with the director's explicit plea for men to properly treat the opposite gender. It then introduces an unusually powerful Griffith female character, a woman with sex appeal, only to spend the next two hours demonstrating how easily even this woman can be victimized. Griffith, with the help of an extraordinary performance by Gish, succeeds in building sympathy for the girl, but by requiring that her naivete, frailty, and dependence be such a large part of her appeal, Griffith renders woman all the more powerless.

Rating: 7.5
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Absorbing film
cz63913 November 2002
This is one of my favourite silents. You can really sympathize with Lillian's character -- in fact, some of the themes are still relevant today such as the sexual double standard women face. Squire Bartlett was giving Lillian a hard time because he knew nothing of her family background when she came to him to find employment -- yet, had it been a man, the Squire would respect the man's right to privacy regarding his private life.

Lillian's acting is great. To me the true judgement of a silent film's effectiveness is the ability to stir up emotions in viewers just by watching the actor's face and body movements. Lillian achieves this beautifully. I think if this were a talkie the effect would have been less.

Overall, this is a great film but a bit long in some parts. For example, that Perkins woman (with the ringlets) was quite annoying and the film sometimes focused a little too much on her antics. I give it a 9 out of 10.
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Pretty Good Melodrama Made Memorable By A Tremendous Climax
Snow Leopard13 September 2001
What would otherwise be a pretty good, if old-fashioned, melodrama is made memorable by a climax that still holds up decades later as one of the most exciting scenes on film. The movie as a whole is imperfect - it's a bit too long, and is occasionally preachy - but it fits together well, and is a deserving classic of the silent film era.

The story is openly moralistic, and would not have worked without good characters and acting. Lillian Gish is deservedly remembered for her role, but Lowell Sherman is also important as the oily Sanderson - his understated performance makes his villainy more effective, and balances out the parts of the movie that are more heavy-handed (the title cards, in particular, leave no doubt as to how the director feels). The story ends up working pretty well in the context of its era.

What really stands out, of course, is its terrific climax on the river, still justifiably praised after all these years. Carefully conceived and beautifully photographed, it is a most effective way to wind up the story. The riveting drama and the stark beauty of the scenery make a great combination that you won't forget.

This would have been even better if it had been maybe 30 minutes shorter. Some scenes go on longer than necessary, and there is a lot of filler material about the townspeople - mildly amusing, and comic relief from a heavy story, but the comedy is not exactly of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin quality, and a bit less would have been better. Still, the majority of the time the film does keep your attention.

"Way Down East" is a classic in spite of its flaws, one that every silent film fan will want to see. And it also would be worth watching for the climactic sequence alone, for anyone who appreciates quality cinema.
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Melodramatic, but Gish makes it work
pocca5 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Lillian Gish once said that she got sick of playing "gaga-babies" for D.W. Griffith and longed to play women of the world rather than innocent naïfs. She then inadvertently paid herself a great compliment when she added that it was far harder to play this sort of role than a vamp because it was far harder to make such a character interesting. Through a combination of her talent and Grifftith's direction her gaga-babies, such as Anna Moore in "Way Down East" continue to compel audiences decades later, long after many of the great vamp roles (that, ironically, were once seen as a modern alternative to Griffith's good girl parts) have been forgotten.

In "Way Down East," Gish, in a story very reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" plays a naïve country girl who suffers, among offer things, the snobbery of rich cousins, a sham marriage, an illegitimate pregnancy and social ostracization. Such sagas of innocence abused are the sort of thing sophisticated audiences love to hate (forgetting perhaps in the real world there are plenty of cases of innocence abused), but Gish somehow makes the melodrama believable, from her joy on her wedding night (that even makes her caddish seducer feel momentarily guilty), to her grief over her dead baby and most famously her fleeing into a blizzard after a local gossip has revealed the truth of her past to the farm family that has employed her. This last part in particular could have become very contrived in the hands of a lesser actress (the ice flow scenes practically beg for snide comparisons with "Uncle Tom's Cabin"), but perhaps because Gish in general avoids over-emoting we don't get the feeling that our feelings are being milked for the sake of sensationalism but rather that we are seeing a woman whose circumstances have earned her the right to lose emotional control. Gish is also helped by a good supporting cast including Lowell Sherman as the cad and Richard Barthlemass as the decent farm boy who courts Anna ,but particularly memorable is the gossip whose open glee when she learns the truth about Anna is chilling (here as in "Intolerance" Griffith recognizes that the zeal of the righteous often has more to do with the pleasure of crucifying wrongdoers than anything else.)

"Way Down East" bears comparison with Gish's better known films, but avoid the cheap Alpha DVD whose score consists of a few mournful bars of music played over and over.
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Who needs CGI?
Michael_Elliott25 February 2008
Way Down East (1920)

*** 1/2 (out of 4)

Anna (Lillian Gish), a naive country girl travels to Boston to ask her rich relatives for some money but once there she meets a rich man (Lowell Sherman) who likes to play the ladies. Soon the rich man cons Anna into a fake marriage but when he learns that she's pregnant he informs her that the marriage is fake and he leaves her. After the baby dies, she's kicked out everywhere because people see her as an unwed mother. She lands a new job with a family but keeps her secret from everyone including a young man (Richard Barthelmess) who falls for her but soon gossip reaches the town and Anna's secret comes out.

Being a huge fan of the director I'm really not sure what took me so long in watching this film. I've read countless books on the director, silent era and Gish and everyone of them have mentioned the ending to this film, which has Anna stuck on a sheet of ice while is quickly goes down river and nearing a waterfall but more on this later. The story itself deals with hypocrites in religion and one of Griffith's favorite subjects of the rich taking advantage of the poor. The story itself really isn't all that original but there's certainly magic all over the film. Lillian Gish, the greatest of all silent female actresses, turns in another marvelous performance as the poor girl who doesn't know when her heart is being played with. There's a short but heartbreaking sequence where Anna is taking care of her dying child and the tenderness and heartache in the eyes of Gish says more than any words could. The power that this scene contains is just one reason why I think silent films are more powerful than sound ones. Richard Barthelmess is also terrific as the young man who sees Anna as a virgin wife and the changes his character goes through are perfectly captures by the actor. Lowell Sherman is also terrific in his role which has to be one of the greatest villains in film history. Griffith certainly builds up the hatred towards his character and it's quite powerful. The cinematography by G.W. Bitzer is among the best of his career.

You can't say Griffith today without getting into a bullshit debate about race but this is a damn shame because there's no doubt in my mind that he had the greatest mind in the history of cinema. We could talk about the battle scenes in The Birth of a Nation or we can talk about nearly any scene in Intolerance but there's no question that Griffith knew how to create suspense and really push a scene for everything it's worth. The famous scene here is the climax where Anna is stuck on the ice and it's just downright remarkable at what they were able to pull off. Various people nearly died in Griffith's 1915 and 1916 epics and that holds true here where both Gish and Barthelmess nearly died pulling off this scene. I've read countless books that talked about how this stuff was filmed but it still seems impossible that they were able to pull this off. The epic scenery and the way it's shot shows that there isn't any trickery going on, which is just downright remarkable. It really blows my mind at how Griffith could pull all of this stuff off and watching it on screen is just something truly remarkable. Apparently Gish suffered permanent injuries to her hand while filming in the cold water, which is just another reason why silent stars were so remarkable since they had to do their own stunts and without the benefit of CGI. Considering that the term "special effects" weren't into play when this was filmed, it's really breathtaking to see something like this take place. It's amazing but 88-years later I can't think of a scene that matches this.
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Griffith's Last Masterpiece
Zasu_Pitts13 May 2005
If Way Down East has been newly restored since the Kino VHS, then my initial disappointment is obsolete. One much watch silent films with a sympathetic view, understanding that much of the seemingly-sloppy editing, jarring grain changes, and nitrate deterioration are not the fault of the filmmakers - who had, by 1920, locked down the basics of film grammar still used today - but subject to the laws of nature, and must be imagined in their original state as one must do while walking through the ruins of the Roman Forum.

One reel into this so-called "Victorian melodrama," and every jerky cut and washed out sky are hidden behind the remarkable acting talents of Gish as tragedy-stricken Anna Moore. "The Gish Close-Up," is often used in preservation-speak to illustrate the subtle nuances of emotion rippling across a lusciously lit face. Gish was blessed with a blowin'-in-the-wind beauty that translates soliloquies to rival Shakespeare; her presence and skill alone is worth the epic three hours.

Also remarkable, and a must-see for film and editing students everywhere, is the thrilling rescue sequence across an icy Connecticut River. Though logic tells us many of the scenes must have been faked, it is impossible to tell and one is doubly chilled at the thought of not only the characters in such a desperate position, but the ACTORS as well...and before the age of stunt doubles.

For those interested in Griffith, it is arguably his last masterpiece before his slow decline in the twenties (unless one counts "America"), and his last blockbuster. The "Victorian" values Griffith expounded in positive, creative - if sometimes ignorant - ways were simply not in keeping with the hedonistic tendencies of the Jazz Age. The melodrama of "Way Down East," is surrounded by so much humor, character, and scenery that one is swept away from modern cynicism...for a while.
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Not Great as Film
hcoursen16 April 2006
Gish and Barthlemess are great, though the latter is probably not on screen often enough and the former might have been on too long. At moments it seemed that Griffith was overindulging in closeups of Gish's wonderfully expressive face. The title cards are typically moralistic and tend to force the story into Griffith's allegory. The main problem though is the introduction of "comic relief." The scenes are simply not funny and needlessly strain our attention span. And if one asks -- didn't people think they were funny then? -- maybe. But the Keystone Cops, Keyton, Chaplin, and Lloyd are still funny. I was intrigued by the Gish character's affinity with Ophelia. Both young women are wronged by their lovers (though the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship is never clear). And Gish, seeing the river, receives the title-card "Frenzied -- Tortured -- The calling river." Fortunately, she does not drown in that wonderfully crosscut and gripping sequence. The only Hamlet director I know of who puts Ophelia into a winter river is Branagh in his film. Kate Winslett finds a hole in the ice in which to drown herself -- assuming she does so intentionally. One reviewer has noted the relationship between the Gish character and the typical Hardy heroine. The reviewer cites Tess, but Eustacia in Return of the Native actually drowns in a river. I also note a parallel between the Gish character and the hapless Roberta Alden of Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Although that novel did not appear until 1925, poor Roberta also drowns, pregnant and in a lake. The music of the copy I watched on TCM was lugubrious but it was fun to hear some of the songs my grandfather sang -- the recurring theme "Believe me if all those endearing young charms," along with "In the Gloaming" and "Love's Old Sweet Song."
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I Loved The Film, But Really, D.W.!
overseer-331 January 2004
Way Down East is a great film, a classic of the silent era. Other reviewers have brought out the main characteristics of the film and its plot, so I won't bother, but I must add that I found myself shaking my head and smiling incredulously at D.W. Griffith's preaching via the title cards about the hurt and pain that unfaithfulness can bring. No one can refute that fact, but in this particular movie D.W.'s moralizing was completely hypocritical, since at the time the film was made (1920) he was having an affair with the actress Carol Dempster, and his own wife was estranged from him.

The film would have worked out just as well, and indeed have been better and smoother, without the mini-sermons in his title cards warning against infidelity. If you are a director who lives a moral life, by all means, preach to the audience. But hold the lectures if you yourself are not practicing the morality you preach.

I give Way Down East a 9 out of 10. Without the moralizing in the title cards I would have given it a straight 10.
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Silent film as its most stereotypically definitive.
theskulI4211 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
D.W. Griffith, quite possibly the man most associated with silent film as a dramatic artform, certainly the one that most comes to mind when limited to director-only (ruling out do-it-all auteurs like Chaplin and Keaton), and he is a creator of much of the universal language as well as the collective consciousness of silent film, the epic lengths, the recognizable intertitles, and of course, the glorious, copious melodrama, and there are few films that pack more melodrama into one over-the-top package than Way Down East.

Way Down East follows the exploits of naive country girl Anna (Lillian Gish), who, after falling in even harder times, decides to come into contact with distant associates of wealth. One of these, cynical womanizer playboy Lennox (Lowell Sherman) attempts to court her, in an attempt to know her biblically. She, being a respectable young woman, of course refuses to indulge until she is married, so Lennox stages a sham marriage, does his business, and leaves her. Oh, but of course, he has also left her with, you guessed it, a CHILD! Once he got his way, Lennox refuses to have anything to do with her, and she is forced to raise the child on her own. She moves into a slummy apartment and is forced to claim that her husband has died, but those inquisitive patricians cannot let it lie, and discovers she was never officially married! Then, right on cue, the baby dies (or as the titles so sensationally put it, "a cold hand on her breast"). Once she is finally outed as a hussy harlot tramp have-not wench by the 'have's, she is forced to admit to her new beau that she is not only a virgin, but a hussy harlot tramp have-not wench, and is thus obliged to out her baby's daddy, and then, all hell breaks lose.

Is there anyone else more perfect or practiced at this sort of histrionic theatricality than Lillian Gish? She had eyes to kill, a brittle delicacy that looks like you could shatter her with a sneeze, and the fact that everyone was always threatening to beat her up. Most of the rest of the cast are unremarkable silent veterans like Richard Barthelmess and Burr McIntosh, although Lowell Sherman plays affluent prick so well I'm convinced it was his own vocation.

At 145 minutes, the film is way too long, including far too many characters and a lot of plot strands that don't really go anywhere, but this is really all part of the bloated indulgence of pure, undiluted melodrama, and although the film isn't 'great' in the objective sense, there's certainly a lot to be entertained by here.

{Grade: 6/10 (C+) / #2 (of 2) of 1920}
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Technically brilliant, but tedious and preachy
tomgillespie20029 June 2012
Anna (Lillian Gish), is a poor country girl who arrives at her rich auntie's mansion to ask for money. The spoiled, womanising Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), is bored with seducing upper-class girls and becomes infatuated by Anna. Seeing that she a moral, God-fearing woman, Lennox proposes to her and arranges a sham marriage. Anna becomes pregnant, only for Lennox to reveal his scheme and kick her out, and Anna's baby dies. Lost and emotionally damaged, Anna wanders to a nearby farm, ran by Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) and his scripture-quoting wife Mother (Kate Bruce). Squire's son David (Richard Barthelmess) falls for Anna, only for Lennox to show up lusting after another girl.

It's hard for me to bring myself to criticise and evaluate a work of D.W. Griffith. As questionable as his political and racial views were, he is one of cinema's true innovators, and even here, back in 1920, he employs an early Technicolor process and an eye for epic cinema. Yet the film hasn't dated well at all, and the religious and moral preaching, and the over-use of title cards, makes the film ridiculously old- fashioned and tedious. This is Griffith's ode to the idea that God created one woman for every man, and states it is a story of women everywhere, who suffer at the hands of men's selfish womanising. It's quite hard to swallow morality lessons from the man that made The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film that glamorised the Ku Klux Klan, and made black people out to be nothing more than loutish animals.

Yet the film does display Griffith's film-making ability, especially in the famous climax that shows David rescuing an unconscious Anna from an ice flood. It even holds up today, with the lack of CGI effects or actors on wires making it even more impressive, and it's all captured beautifully by Billy Bitzer and Hendrik Sartov's cinematography. And Gish, one of the most successful and hard-working actresses in film history (and one of the few survivors of the death of the silent era) is exceptional. Her timid Anna is beaten down at every turn by the amoral upper classes, who, in Griffith's eyes, are defying God with their whoring and luxurious, indulgent lives. Yet overall, at 145 minutes, the film drags, especially when Griffith shifts his concentration on various supporting sub-plots, that play out like intrusive and uninteresting vignettes. Certainly worth seeing for some fine technical work and the captivating Gish, but not a film I can see myself needing to watch again.

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excellent and lengthy silent, brilliantly showcasing Miss Gish
didi-57 June 2009
This film has a great reputation as one of the classics of the silent cinema - starring Lillian Gish as Anna, a simple soul from a poor family, but with rich relations; Richard Barthelmess as David, the son of a country Squire; and Lowell Sherman as Sanderson, an adventurer.

Does it deserve its reputation? Well, Lillian Gish was certainly an excellent actress, very natural and expressive, and while the film drags a bit in places (and has some comedy scenes which really don't belong), it does have one or two places where the emotion of what's happening on screen reaches across the distance of nearly ninety years and makes the film work very well.

Beautifully shot, especially the final scenes out on the river as the ice thaws, this is perhaps DW Griffith's best film - without the dubious racist leanings of Birth of a Nation or the OTT leanings of Intolerance. 'Way Down East', from a stage play, is an excellent film - yes, it is perhaps overly moralistic and more than a bit Victorian in its tone, but it still works well.
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One of the Best Endings in Film
wes-connors2 December 2007
Lillian Gish (as Anna Moore) lives with her poor mother in Greenville, a remote New England village. A sore need for money demands Ms. Gish leave for Boston, to appeal to some wealthy relatives, the Tremonts. Richard Barthelmess (as David Bartlett) lives elsewhere; "though of plain stock, he has been tutored by poets and visions wide as the world." In the city, Gish meets Lowell Sherman (as Lennox Sanderson). Mr. Sherman's hobby is "ladies, Ladies, LADIES!"; specifically, he is interested in the sexual conquest of virginal young women. Gish's delicate beauty is "a whip to Sherman's jaded appetite"; and, she innocently enters his clutches. Sherman tricks Gish into a mock marriage, and leaves her pregnant…

Deceptively subtitled "A Simple Story of Plain People"; possibly, director D.W. Griffith was seeking to enhance his film's dramatic twists and turns; since, while Gish's "Anna" could be considered of "plain" stock, what happens her could not be called "simple". This film reunites Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, after the successful "Broken Blossoms" (1919); their "Way Down East" performances are also stunning, though Barthelmess has less to do this time around. The spectacular ending is still riveting after all these years; but, it works best after you've seen the preceding story of degradation and love.

The flaw in "Way Down East" may be Griffith's overindulgence in ludicrous "slapstick"-type humor; this is most explicit in Edgar Nelson's "Hi Holler" character, which really lays an egg. The silliness also rears its ugly head on Creighton Hale's occasionally cow-licked crown. Neither "True Heart Susie" (1919) nor "The Greatest Question" (1919) veered so wildly into this form of lunacy. But, in the end, these indulgences cannot diminish the great performances, and spectacular ending of "Way Down East". The "great ice-break" is absolutely indispensable.

********** Way Down East (9/3/20) D.W. Griffith ~ Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Creighton Hale
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Gish's glory outweighs Griffith's gaffes
mlevans2 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
One of D.W. Griffith's last big commercial successes, 'Way Down East' represents much that was good in Griffith's directorial style and much that was wanting in it. Overall, it is a very solid movie and leaves the viewer satisfied in the end. It is certainly not the ideal film to show someone who has never watched a silent feature film, however.

Anyone who has studied film history knows about the famous ice flow scene in which Lillian Gish put herself at tremendous risk in real-life blizzard conditions. This is the climax, but it comes only after a long and occasionally dragging journey.

The lovely Ms. Gish plays Anna Moore, a naïve small town girl, tricked into a fake marriage by notorious womanizing playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman). Finding out about the sham only after telling Sanderson she is pregnant, she is abandoned and later evicted after both her mother and the baby die. Her past later catches up with her after she has established herself as a beloved maid in the Bartlett household, where son David (matinee idol Richard Barthlemess) is in love with her. It is when her past is revealed and Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh) throws her out into a blizzard that the famed ice flow sequence takes place.

There are some faults in 'Way Down East.' It is long – probably a bit longer than it needs to be. Plenty of time is spent in establishing the various characters, both major and minor, and the locales. There are a few spots where things seem to drag a bit. Of course Griffith strongly moralizes as usual, too. One fault that some critics have flagged that I do not necessarily agree with is Griffith's insertion of comedy relief. In many films of the era this did indeed mar films. In 'Way Down East,' though, the bumbling minor characters have a charm of their own and are naturally enough melded into the story that their actions do not seem to be at all intrusive to me. Vivia Ogden as the gossip Martha Perkins is quite good and her interaction with Seth Holcomb (Porter Strong), a goateed old goat who always seems to be at the Bartletts, is enjoyable. We are told Seth has followed her around for 20 years and she doesn't seem to mind his attention. Shy 'Professor' Creighton Hale is amusing at times, flirting clumsily with both Martha and the squire's niece Kate (Mary Hay.) Perhaps rolly polly hired hand Hi Holler (Edgar Nelson) could be dispensed with, but his screen time is limited and not a distraction. The music is at times heavy handed, but is appropriate in mood setting – including the forays into comic relief.

True, this is a potboiler melodrama with some heavy-handed Griffith preaching. Still, it also includes Griffith's famed build-up of intensity and speed as the climax is neared. It is also pictorially attractive, with snow-covered New England countrysides and landscapes. Also, Gish and Barthelmess never looked better. As other have noted, Gish by 1920 had fully come into her own as an actress and could make a very strong argument for being the best of all silent screen actresses.

There are other silent films much easier to sit through in their entirety. This one is worth the effort, though. Griffith, warts and all, could tell a good story.
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