The story of an innocent country girl who is seduced and betrayed by a city slicker, WAY DOWN EAST was, after THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1914), the most popular film of D.W. Griffith's career. Based on a beloved but hokey stage melodrama, the movie is today noted chiefly for its legendary
climactic episode: a harrowingly realistic sequence in which the hero hurdles a succession of floating ice blocks to save the heroine from being washed over the falls.
Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) lives with her mother (Mrs. David Landau) in a remote New England village. As poverty approaches, Mrs. Moore sends her daughter to Boston to solicit money from a rich relative (Josephine Bernard). No sooner has the girl arrived than she is swept off her feet by the
attentions of Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a jaded playboy who hires a bogus clergyman to marry them. When the joyous Anna informs Sanderson that she is pregnant, he tells her the truth about their "marriage" and abandons her.
After the death of her mother, Anna moves to the small town of Belden to hide her shame. When her infant becomes very ill, she baptizes the child herself. The baby dies, and Anna's priggish landlady (Emily Fitzroy), suspecting that her tenant is unwed, evicts her. Anna travels to Bartlett Farm,
where she begs for work and is taken in.
Living on the farm are the puritanical Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), his kindly wife (Kate Bruce), and their son, David (Richard Barthelmess). The squire hopes that David will wed Kate Brewster (Mary Hay), a neighbor with several suitors, including Sanderson, who also lives in the area.
Sanderson spots Anna at work on the Bartlett Farm and, fearing exposure, urges her to leave town. Meanwhile, Anna and David are falling in love, but, haunted by her past, the girl rebuffs the boy's romantic overtures.
One day, Anna's former landlady, on a visit from Belden, sees the girl in town and passes on her suspicions about Anna to the town gossip, Martha Perkins (Vivia Ogden), who relays the scandalous news to Squire Bartlett. On the following night at dinner, the morally outraged squire orders Anna out
of his house. Before leaving the premises to brave a fierce snowstorm, she denounces Sanderson, who is present, as her betrayer.
Banished from the Bartlett home, Sanderson is thrown from his carriage and takes refuge in a cabin, where he encounters David, who has interrupted his pursuit of Anna to rest. The two men engage in a fistfight which David wins. The boy goes back out into the storm to resume his search for Anna,
whom he finds in a semiconscious state, floating on a cake of ice that is about to be swept over the falls. David risks his life to save his beloved and carries her back to the cabin, where the disgraced Sanderson offers to marry her. She refuses.
In a triple ceremony, three couples are joined in marriage: Kate and a flighty young professor (Creighton Hale); Martha and her longtime local admirer, Seth (Porter Strong); and Anna and David.
"We all thought privately that Mr. Griffith had lost his mind," wrote Gish of Griffith's purchase of the "horse-and-buggy melodrama" Way Down East, a huge stage success in early 20th-century provincial America, but little more than a joke to sophisticates. "As I read the play I could hardly keep
from laughing," Gish recalled. Trooper that she was, she soon got into the spirit of things and, by filming's end, not only had she given Griffith one of the most earnest performances of her life, she almost had given him her life itself.
In preparation for the climactic storm sequence, Griffith took out insurance policies not only on his principal players but also on the weather: he was entitled to collect blizzard insurance if it didn't snow by a certain date. When a blizzard finally struck in March, everybody was ready for it
(though several crew members contracted pneumonia). Like a real-life Squire Bartlett, Griffith sent Gish out into the storm and filmed her struggles with the elements for hours on end. In one startling shot from this sequence, snow and ice transform Gish's lovely young face into an image of the
older Gish to come. ("Billy, move in!" Gish remembered Griffith shouting to his cameraman, Billy Bitzer. "Get that face! That face--get that face!")
The ice floe scenes were filmed separately in Vermont. During the three weeks of subzero shooting, Gish convinced Griffith that the sequence would be more effective if she trailed her hair and hand in the icy waters. She was right, but at a price: her hair froze and her hand bothered her for
decades afterwards. Later in the shooting, she was furious with the director when he insisted that she pretty herself up for the post-blizzard scene in the cabin. "This picture has to make money!" he barked.
It did. Billed as "a simple story of plain people," it ran for more than a year on Broadway at road-show prices ($10 plus tax) and was enthusiastically received throughout the US and overseas, although in France, Gish recalled, "audiences couldn't understand why Anna was punished for having a
baby." It was Griffith's last box-office bonanza.
Griffith begins WAY DOWN EAST with a long introduction requiring six cards and nearly 200 words. Its contents, in a nutshell: Since the dawn of time, man was a polygamous animal until Christ arrived to preach monogamy, a message that women accepted but men unfortunately did not.
Until its extraordinary climax, WAY DOWN EAST is a serviceable, if rarely brilliant, exercise in old-fashioned melodrama. Sloppily edited in places, it is further weakened by its less-than-provocative premise. A paragon of virtue from first to last, Anna believes she is married and is thus beyond
the reproach of even a bluenose like Squire Bartlett--she is a victim not of moralists but of misunderstanding. The film's most damaging flaw is its copious comic relief, a pathetic parade of bad barnyard humor of the kick-in-the-pants, egg-in-the-face, pitchfork-in-the-seat variety. Much of this
material was deleted when WAY DOWN EAST was reissued in 1931, occasioning the rare spectacle of a film's shortened version being superior to the original.
As Anna, Gish delivers one of the most intense of several such performances for Griffith--a portrayal that, in John Barrymore's opinion, surpassed the work of Duse and Bernhardt. As fine as she is--and she's particularly wonderful in her fiery denunciation of Sanderson--some will prefer the
subtler performances she gave later in the decade for director Victor Seastrom.
As for WAY DOWN EAST's thrilling last two reels, they are everything they're cracked up to be. Yet, one does not have to agree totally with these words of Griffith expert Edward Wagenknecht to be given pause by them: "No director has the right to ask of his players what Griffith asked in WAY DOWN
EAST, and no film can be worth such risk and suffering." (Violence, adult situations.)
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