Way Down East

Released:  1920

Cast:  Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale, Emily Fitzroy, Mrs.  Morgan Belmont, Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong, George Neville, Edgar Nelson

SUMMARY:  Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a poor but good-hearted girl who lives with her mother.  Since the two do not have much money, Anna moves in with her rich cousins.  While living there, Anna meets rich playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman).  The two soon marry:  unbeknownst to Anna, the marriage is fake and not legal.  Sanderson convinces Anna not to tell anyone about their marriage.  When Anna tells Sanderson that she is pregnant, he leaves her.  Not long after this, Anna’s mother dies, and she is forced to move into a boarding house with her (now infant) baby.  The baby also dies, and when the landlady learns of Anna’s unmarried state, she forces her out of the boarding house.

Anna is able to find work at Squire Bartlett’s (Burr McIntosh) farm, where she quickly becomes part of the family.  Bartlett’s son David (Richard Barthelmess) falls for Anna, but she pushes him away because of her past.  It turns out that Sanderson is a neighbor of Squire Bartlett, and is a frequent visitor at the house.  Neither Sanderson nor Anna mention their history.  Squire Bartlett (who is known to be a harsh man) eventually learns of Anna’s past as an unwed mother, and throws her out of his house.  Before she leaves, she reveals Sanderson had tricked her into the marriage, then deserted her.  She then runs out into a snowstorm.  David and the others form a search party, and David finally finds Anna at the river.  Unfortunately, Anna has passed out on a piece of ice that is flowing toward a waterfall.  Eventually, David is able to rescue her from the river, and he then marries her.

MY TAKE:  Let me state the obvious:  this movie is really old.  It’s a silent movie, so you have to read intertitles to follow the story.  According to the version I watched, several sequences have been lost, so there are times when the action pauses and only text remains to continue the plot.  Despite all this, the movie remains fairly interesting.  Probably because of the limitations of the technology, the film moves pretty quickly, and there’s a lot of emphasis on action and movement.  The end scene on the river is actually pretty cool, with David hopping over sinking chunks of ice.  There’s also several small characters that provide comic relief, particularly the hired hand and constable (who seems to have no teeth and the loosest gums/lips ever).  The town gossip is also interesting, but this is more because of the facial contortions she does.  She reminded me a lot of Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz, with her sour expression and nosy personality.  I actually thought her eyes were going to pop out of her head on a couple of occasions.  I’m not sure why it’s called “Way Down East”, though – usually “down” means “south”.  Where are you at if you have to go down to go east?

RATING:  It’s interesting from a historical perspective, but I wouldn’t watch it again.

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