Way Down East (1920): Movie Review

Way Down East (1920)

Directed by D.W. Griffith
Starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess
Produced by D.W. Griffith Productions

Anna Moore lives (Lillian Gish) with her mother in the country. The poor family needs money and Anna heads off to visit her rich relatives in Boston for a loan.  The extended family is less than thrilled to see their country bumpkin niece show up. Anna sticks around for a ball and meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who we are told has three specialties: “ladies, Ladies and LADIES”.

Lennox proposes to Anna and all seems well.  Except when Lennox tells his betrothed to keep it a secret, then pays someone to pretend to be a priest and marry them. Off they go on their honeymoon and, after a few reluctant moments, the sham marriage is consummated.

The marriage of course results in a pregnancy, which forces Lennox to come clean. Anna is on her own and gives birth to a boy..but the infant is sick and dies in short order.

Anna is now a social pariah (having a baby and no husband is a big no-no) and is evicted from her room. She wanders into another town where she meets up with the Bartletts and finds work on their farm. She keeps her past a secret from them, but catches the eye of the Bartletts’ son David (Richard Barthelmess). She resists his advances, ashamed of her past.

Soon enough Lennox ends up at the estate across the street from the Bartletts. Will Anna’s secret be revealed to her new adoptive family. And can David love her in spite of her past?

Way Down East is the tale of two movies. One has impressive acting by the two main leads and a climax as visually stunning and engaging as any I have seen in the silent era. The other is pretentious, in need of editing and full of characters who appear to be in a different movie.

Let’s talk about the first. Lillian Gish is easily now my favorite actress of the silent era thus far.  he is natural in most scenes, but when the emotional moment comes, she goes for it. And it never seems over the top.

Richard Barthelmess is someone I hope to see more of. He is great as David, underplaying his role for much of the movie. He is pitch perfect in his confusion when Anna’s secret comes to light, then he is fantastic in his rage at Lennox when he discovers the circumstances behind Anna’s pregnancy.

If a 2-1/2 hour movie can be saved by a ten-minute ending sequence, this is one comes as close as any. Anna runs from the Bartletts’ home into a winter storm, ultimately collapsing near an icy stream bank. The ice breaks away from the shore and large chunks of the ice start flowing down river. David chases her onto the river, jumping from ice chunk to ice chunk to reach Anna before the ice floes go over the waterfall. It’s a thrilling chase, masterfully edited and perfectly acted.

Unfortunately, the film has a lot of problems as well. Griffith has developed this annoying habit with his language.  It’s flowery, as though written by someone who wishes he were a poet, but doesn’t have the skill. A sample:

Time and place – in the story world of make-believe
Characters – nowhere – yet everywhere
Incidents – never occurred – yet always happening

Beyond the language, his film style conveys a sense of over-the-top imagery that is out of place. At one point, a bird lands on Gish’s shoulder, demonstrative of her goodness and harmony with nature. It’s unnecessary. The audience is already on her side.

A lot of the secondary characters are completely unnecessary. The Bartletts are surrounded by townsfolk who attempt to serve as comic relief. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make the audience laugh at the inept constable when you’ve just killed off our heroine’s baby.

Finally, there is one moment in its sheer lunacy I need to point out. The Bartlett patriarch, Squire, is told secondhand that Anna had birthed a child out of wedlock. He is angry, but his wife says he needs proof. So the next morning he gets up bright and early and rides a sleigh to Anna’s former town. He arrives at noon.  He walks into her old room and ask the landlady if it’s true. She confirms it in two sentences. He then goes back out, gets in his sleigh and drives back. The guy just went 10 hours round trip to have a 90-second conversation. And that is proof. It’s completely unnecessary in the story. He could have just acted on the initial claim and you could have had the same result.

You could have cut this movie by almost half and had a lot of the same impact. A lot of the opening 45 minutes is plodding and unnecessary. There’s a lot of melodramatic filler throughout the movie that could have been lost and I would not have missed it.

It’s hard to say whether this is a good movie or a bad movie. There are moments I loved and moments that were painful to sit through. I guess I’d give it a middle of the road:

**1/2 out of *****

Patrick McDonnell is a film enthusiast who discovered older films growing up in Philadelphia. Now, to fill in the gaping holes in his cinematic knowledge, Patrick is working his way through 100 Years of Movies, one year at a time.