Filmsite Movie Review
Way Down East (1920)
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Background

Way Down East (1920) is D. W. Griffith's classic, silent melodramatic film. He bought the film rights to the story, originally a stage play of the same name by an inexperienced writer named Lottie Blair Parker. First performed in the late 1800s, it soon became one of the most popular plays in the US. It barnstormed successfully across the US for ten years, but was considered outdated by the time of its cinematic production in 1920. Although it was Griffith's most expensive film to date (costing him $175,000, more than the entire cost of his 1915 classic The Birth of a Nation (1915)), it was one of his most commercially successful films.

The film is subtitled: "A Simple Story of Plain People," with director Griffith intending that its sweeping, lyrical, but epic style would convey an image of a vanished, unspoiled, pastoral America. It is a simple, timeless allegory of plain, everyday people in a story which attacks prejudice and bigotry. Lillian Gish's performance as Anna Moore is superb and flawless, beautifully photographed as having an inner light and spirituality. Moving, authentic and intense, she expresses the full range of emotions from a young, fragile and innocent country girl in the big city, to an ecstatically-infatuated new bride, to a betrayed "wife," to a bereaved unwed mother, and then into a matured woman.

The Story

The opening title cards:

Since the beginning of time man has been polygamous - even the saints of Biblical history - but the Son of Man gave a new thought, and the world is growing nearer the true ideal. He gave of One Man for One Woman. Not by laws - our Statutes are now overburdened by ignored laws - but within the heart of man, the truth must bloom that his greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy. Today Woman brought up from childhood to expect ONE CONSTANT MATE possibly suffers more than at any other point in the history of mankind, because not yet has the man-animal reached this high standard - except perhaps in theory.

If there is anything in this story that brings home to men the suffering caused by our selfishness, perhaps it will not be in vain.

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

The supposed setting of the film is a remote village in New England - the scene is of a gently rolling, grassy hill, a wooded landscape on the banks of a river, a few white farmhouses, surrounded by hedges, vines and flowering trees. The main character of the tale is introduced:

Anna Moore and her mother. We call her "Anna" - we might have called her "Woman" - for is not hers the story -

In her humble home in Greenville to the tune of "Home Sweet Home," country girl Anna (Lillian Gish) sits with her mother (Mrs. David Landau). "Sore need of money drives the mother to appeal to the Tremonts, their rich relatives in Boston." Anna replies to her mother: "Oh Mother, I hate to ask them for money," but then after a troubled twilight, she agrees: "All right, Mother, I'll go." Anna packs and then departs from her country home for the city: "An errand undertaken with the tremulous footsteps that ever mark the trail of the 'poor relation.'"

The afternoon that an innocent Anna arrives at her cousins, the Tremonts, they are in the midst of giving a bridge whist party. At the formal party are Aunt Emma Tremont (Josephine Bernard), her daughter Diana Tremont (Mrs. Morgan Belmont), and Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman):

An occasional interloper in Society - the dashing Lennox Sanderson, who depends for his living upon a rich father. He has three specialities - ladies - Ladies - and LADIES.

At the imposing front doors of the Tremont's mansion, Anna is dwarfed by their size. She leans backward when all of the sudden, a rude butler opens the doors and startles her. He lets her enter - her Aunt (Mrs. Emma Tremont) (Josephine Bernard) is not particularly cordial: "My dear child! Whatever brought you here?" Her courage failing her, Anna avoids the question and presents her with a gift of a knitted hug-me-tight. Mrs. Tremont imparts the embarrassing news of the country cousin's arrival to her daughters. One of them suggests: "Well, get rid of her." "But to impress their eccentric, but enormously rich aunt (Florence Short), the sisters pretend to be nice to Anna." Her wealthy relatives condescendingly inspect her new gloves, as Anna tells them: "Yes, I expect to stay quite a time - that is, if we suit each other."

Chapter II: Near the country estate of the Sanderson family is Bartlett Village. It is also the home of Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh), the richest farmer in the neighborhood. At the Bartlett farm, springtime is "awakening" - flowers and trees blossom, newborn birds in a nest crane their necks for food, baby chicks are wrapped in a blanket, cows graze, and the Bartletts sit in rocking chairs on the front lawn.

David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess), though of plain stock, has been tutored by poets and visions wide as the world.

At the well, David is first seen stroking the head of a tamed wild dove. His father, Squire Bartlett, is "a stern old puritan, who lives according to his own conception of the Scriptures, particularly the 'Thou Shalt Nots'." Mrs. Bartlett (Kate Bruce) is a "gentle soul...as sweet as her beloved Scriptures." At twenty-one years of age, David often daydreams.

Back in Boston, the Tremonts hold their great ball, "the climax of the social season." Well-attired guests arrive as Anna wears a plain dress "that she and her mother had made in case she should go out in Society." In an upstairs dressing room, one of the Tremont girls snobbishly remarks to Anna about her dress: "It's quite all right - and from the balcony you can see us dancing." "Solely to pique the sisters of whom she is not over-fond, the eccentric aunt makes different arrangements for Anna." After her dress is made to look more appealing, Anna is led downstairs, where "beneath the alcove lights' golden glow...Anna's delicate beauty [is] a whip to Sanderson's jaded appetite." Looking elegant, Anna is immediately the center of attention - to the young Tremonts' dismay.

Anna particularly appeals to the fancy of Lennox Sanderson, and he quickly flatters her beauty with an idyllic image:

In your beauty lives again Elaine, the lily maid, love dreaming at Astolat.

With the light glowing around her head, the naively-innocent, coquettish Anna requests: "Tell me more." "Perhaps in fear of her own daughters being outshone...Cousin Emma hurries Anna off to bed." "Susceptible" Sanderson, the callous city playboy, is "obsessed by a new desire" for Anna. Back in her bedroom, Anna has been emotionally affected by the attention she has received from Sanderson.

"After managing several meetings," Sanderson "finally lures Anna to [his] apartment to meet a mythical aunt." There, Anna is dwarfed by the vastness of his lavish place - he presses a hidden button to automatically play a record on his phonograph player. When he makes a physical advance, she hurries to leave. Then he proposes:

You don't understand...I mean - I want you to - to marry me.

Immediately overwhelmed and overcome, great big tears well up in Anna's eyes - "Anna's inexperienced heart caught in a tide of infatuation." She hugs him, and then delightedly tells him: "Oh, I'm just going to tell everybody." But Sanderson persuades Anna to promise secrecy - "dreading to cross the wishes of his rich father, upon whom he is dependent."

Sanderson belongs to a class which, if it cannot get what it wants in one way, it will go to any length to get it in another...Evil plans -...Passion's urge knows no conscience and various its ways to betrayal. Sanderson induces Anna to marry secretly before going home.

In a mock/faked marriage ceremony, the city slicker dupes the virtuous heroine into believing that they are married. At the same moment, "far away, it happens that David Bartlett is dreaming a troubled dream." During the mock ceremony when the wedding ring is dropped, David awakens abruptly and sits bolt upright in his bed, wondering amusedly what caused him to be so disturbed. After the ring is retrieved, Sanderson assures his "bride":

Don't worry - everything's all right. Don't you trust me?

After their sham "marriage," their horse-drawn carriage takes them for their honeymoon to their "bridal suite at Rose Tree Inn" where he despoils her.

To her it is the fulfillment of the dreams of girlhood - to him but another adventure...Here conscience knocks at the door - perhaps the slightest interruption might still avert this tragedy, but...

After he kisses her hand and she calls him: "My, my husband," his eyes are averted to the right. He hesitates - a momentary ethical twinge of conscience knocking at the door. But when he glances down at her intimately-exposed ankles (below the lace hem which is underneath her silk dress), he continues with the seduction in order to sleep with her. As they stand to go to the bedroom, the camera fades.

In Bartlett village one afternoon, the post office is robbed, and caricatures of the townspeople are introduced. The dread minion of the Law - Reuben 'Rube' Whipple (George Neville) is the Constable. Another townsperson Seth Holcomb (Porter Strong) waits for Martha Perkins (Vivia Ogden), whom he has been following around for twenty years. Seth takes his liquor under the name of 'Long Life Bitters.' Martha is "a relic" - nobody needs a newspaper when she is around. The Constable is on a leisurely "man hunt," pulled in his open buggy by his fiery steed Napoleon, but his horse lazily refuses to climb a hill. Tempting his horse with a handful of grass, the country bumpkin Constable lures his horse-drawn carriage up the hill. He announces the post office robbery: "Great news! Postoffice bin robbed! Dollar eighty-two cents in postage stamps, eighteen postal cards! Heavy loss to the gov'ment!"

Chapter IV: One day of honeymoon before Anna starts home with her great secret. She asks Sanderson to promise to be in contact soon: "Promise now - only two days!" After returning home to her mother, Anna relieves her mother's anxiety with happy, mysterious hints of wealth to come. But for playboy Sanderson, the old ways are "too pleasant to give up" and he flirts with ladies in the city for long periods of time. Less and less frequent are their secret meetings until at last...she writes an urgent letter to him from her home to come and visit.

Anna is ecstatic to see Lennox, but his first question to her is: "You haven't told anyone about our marriage?" She tells him of a tender new reason why the secret cannot be kept any longer. To the tune of "Rock-a-bye Baby," Anna cannot hide her secret any longer, and demurely tells him that she is pregnant - and that their secret marriage must be revealed. But Lennox demands: "You musn't tell anyone!" and then he tells her the truth about their marriage:

Well - if you must know the truth - because we aren't married at all!

With a look of disbelief and shock, Anna responds: "You're just joking - tell me, aren't you joking?" From a string around her neck (kept concealed under her dress), Anna shows him her wedding ring: "WE MUST be married - see - see - our ring..." With tears welling up in her eyes, Anna becomes hysterical, getting on her knees and throwing her arms around his neck. He pushes her aside and coldly explains:

Marriage would have meant my losing everything - I intended to make it right - but - ...For Heaven's sake, don't make a scene! I'll let you have lots of money and you can go away.

The duplicitious scoundrel Sanderson abandons her, walking out on her. Anna cries out: "Mother! MOTHER!" and then collapses on the floor. When her mother returns, Anna is revived, and she shows her mother her wedding ring while explaining the deception.

Some time afterwards - left alone by her mother's death - Anna hides away with her shame in the village of Belden. Maternity is "Woman's Gethesemane." The ruined girl has a nameless, illegitimate baby: "Shadows across the time dial. The baby without a name." The doctor informs her that her newborn baby is "very sick" and prescribes "ten drops of this in a little water every hour until I return." The stern-faced Belden landlady Maria Poole (Emily Fitzroy) towers over Anna and demands to know: "Where's your husband?" Anna hesitates and nervously responds: "Oh, he's - he's away." The landlady solemnly reminds Anna that if the baby dies without being baptized, it will never see God.

Holding her dying baby close to her breast, at the beginning of one of the film's most emotionally and poignantly-acted scenes, Anna is "helpless and alone in the dreadful hours of the night, and stricken with a terrible fear for her baby's soul...she herself performs the sacred rite." Placing the baby on a chair, she tearfully insists that her baby receive a proper baptism, sprinkling water on its head:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, - and of the Holy Ghost. I baptize thee TRUST LENNOX.

Melodramatically, Anna expresses sadness, prayerful caring, and utter submission to her God. Shortly thereafter, during a vigil with her newborn baby in her arms (in a familiar Madonna image), when "the little hands grow cold upon her breast," she warms the baby's hands with her breath and mouth. The doctor diagnoses the end of the baby's life: "My child, your baby is dead." With open-mouthed despair and a look of dumbfounded shock, Anna's face registers an unreserved reaction of fright to the news. She faints backward in her chair.


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