Way Down East (1920)
Way Down East (1920)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 25 min.

Release Date: September 3rd, 1920 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: D.W. Griffith Actors: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Mrs. David Landau, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Josephine Bernard, Kate Bruce

 


 

“A

simple story of plain people,” states the opening titles, as details about marital bliss are revealed. Polygamy has been around since the beginning of time, but slowly, steadily, man is learning that faithfulness is the key to keeping a spouse happy. Likewise, women expecting one constant mate is the key to unhappiness, as men can never be trusted to uphold such a virtue. As a preface – an overly broad statement piece – this tale is destined to unveil just such a scenario: a woman will expect steadfast devotion, but a man will wander.

Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) and her mother live in a remote New England village called Greenville. When their money dwindles to the point of desperation, Anna sets off to Boston, where their rich relatives, the Tremonts, might be able to help. Middle-aged cousin Emma Tremont (Josephine Bernard) receives the young woman, who immediately attempts to ask for financial help, but, too nervous to be so blunt, instead changes the subject to a homemade gift (a hug-me-tight). Emma isn’t too thrilled to see her country relative, essentially put off by the interruption to her grand whist tournament, which she hosts to a collection of stuffy socialites. One such occasional interloper in society, Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), is a notorious playboy who depends on his rich father to fund his primary hobby: ladies. And though Anna is quaint, it’s hard for the philanderer not to take notice of her beauty – and naïveté.

At the lavish Tremont ball, cynical Emma clothes Anna in a skimpy dress to pique the Bostonian’s own adult daughters, but the cruel ruse also attracts the attentions of several men in attendance – including the susceptible Sanderson. And once he has his sights set on this latest conquest, Anna is all but helpless in his practiced schemes. When his advances provoke dismay, he shifts to a marriage proposition – to be kept secret, of course – for the sake of propriety, which further entraps the inexperienced though nevertheless infatuated waif. “Don’t you trust me?”

Meanwhile, at the neighboring Bartlett Village, home of stern old puritan Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), the richest farmer in the area, lives 21-year-old David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess), a man of plain stock, but something of a poet and artist. And though he’s far away from Anna, dreaming of youthful adventures and idealistic romance, it’s clear that he’s the most suitable match – and the one who will save the Moore girl from her devious, deceptive dallier. “I’ll let you have lots of money and you can go away.”

Anna’s gullibility, shame, and societal downfall may be predictable (especially with the opening titles), but the story is no less effective for it. Its simplicity is one of its strongest points; there’s a universal quality to this yarn, aided by the minimal locations and fewer main characters – one that all audiences can take in without knowing anything beyond the nature of a mistreated woman, her admirable perseverance, and the heroic kindness of strangers. And Gish is exceptional in the lead, imparting a wealth of emotions with little more than her large, moist eyes; despite the mugging that was standard at the time, Gish possesses a notable subtlety that works wonders for her sympathetic persona.

Additionally, the beautiful, melancholy score, with its mesmerizing love theme, emphasizes all the right moments. Comic elements surface, too, particularly with a slapstick-prone constable (George Neville), the portly farmhand Hi Holler (Edgar Nelson), and a nerdy butterfly professor (Creighton Hale, doing a few routines akin to Harold Lloyd), but the concepts that remain most profound are those reminiscent of the great Russian tragedies of Tolstoy, examining the arc of a rise and fall, dramatic betrayal, love triangles, injurious gossip (and the importance of reputation), the disparity of city life and rural living, and the evils of high-class elites versus the easily-manipulated poor. This classic tale is full of wrong men coercing misguided women for a brief excitement that permanently demolishes fanciful innocence.

Once again anticipated, yet crushing even when entirely expected, Anna must eventually confront the smug, unabashed Lennox (something of the climax to Part I, which divides the film into halves), whose status keeps him in a position of power over not only his first victim, but also a subsequent target, the Squire’s niece (Mary Hay). There are, in fact, a number of unlikely coincidences coursing throughout the narrative; however, the picture’s release in 1920 allows for a hint of lenience toward improbable encounters. Ultimately, though “Way Down East” is an epic romance (with an epic runtime, which hurts the pacing now and then), containing striking imagery, colorful characters, and heartfelt interactions, the central notion that a woman is unworthy of marriage (and is, in general, contaminated) if she’s not a virgin is unfortunately antiquated (and here it’s a secret that threatens to bring ruin upon an entire life). Judgment over such trivial things (and the uneven distribution of blame toward men and women over these matters), specifically when used as a major factor of goodness and badness, doesn’t age well. Nevertheless, the finale is exhilarating, with Anna proving to be as strong as is required when faced with such overwhelming societal adversity – and then with David matching her strength, not only in braving a storm but also in disregarding stature and expectations for true love.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10