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Way Down East

Way Down East
Theatrical release poster
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith (uncredited)
Written by D. W. Griffith (uncredited)
Joseph R. Grismer
Anthony Paul Kelly (scenario)
Based on Way Down East 
by Lottie Blair Parker
Starring Lillian Gish
Richard Barthelmess
Lowell Sherman
Burr McIntosh
Music by Louis Silvers
William Frederick Peters
Cinematography Billy Bitzer
Hendrik Sartov
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • September 3, 1920 (1920-09-03)
Running time 145 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent (English intertitles)
Budget US$ 700,000
Box office $2 million[1]
Way Down East

Way Down East is a 1920 American silent romantic drama film directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. It is one of four film adaptations of the melodramatic 19th century play Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker. There were two earlier silent versions, and one sound version in 1935, starring Henry Fonda.[2]

Griffith's version is particularly remembered for its exciting climax in which Lillian Gish's character is rescued from doom on an icy river. Some sources, quoting newspaper ads of the time, say a sequence was filmed in an early color process, possibly Technicolor or Prizmacolor.[3][4]


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Censorship 4
  • Critical reception 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The rich, typified by the handsome man-about-town Lennox (Lowell Sherman), are exceptionally selfish and think only of their own pleasure.

Anna (Lillian Gish) is a poor country girl whom Lennox tricks into a fake wedding. When she becomes pregnant, he leaves her. She has the baby, named Trust Lennox, on her own.

When the baby dies she wanders until she gets a job with Squire Bartlett (Burr McIntosh). David (Richard Barthelmess), Squire Bartlett's son, falls for her, but she rejects him due to her past. Then Lennox shows up lusting for another local girl, Kate. Seeing Anna, he tries to get her to leave, but she refuses to go, although she promises to say nothing about his past.

Finally, Squire Bartlett learns of Anna's past from Martha, the town gossip. In his anger, he tosses Anna out into a snow storm. Before she goes, she fingers the respected Lennox as her despoiler and the father of her dead baby. Anna becomes lost in the raging storm while David leads a search party. In the famous climax, the unconscious Anna floats down an icy river towards a waterfall, until rescued at the last moment by David, who, in the final scene, marries her.

Subplots relate the romances and eventual marriages of some of the picaresque characters inhabiting the village.



D.W. Griffith bought the film rights to the story, originally a stage play by Lottie Blair Parker that was elaborated by Joseph R. Grismer. Grismer's wife, the Welsh actress Phoebe Davies, became identified with the play beginning in 1897 and starred in over 4000 performances of it by 1909 making it one of the most popular plays in the United States. Davies died in 1912 but had toured the play for well over ten years. The play was considered outdated by the time of its cinematic production in 1920. The play was an old-fashioned story that espoused nineteenth century Americana and Victorian ideals.[5]

Although it was Griffith's most expensive film to date, it was also one of his most commercially successful. Way Down East is the fourth highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more than $4,500,000 at the box office in 1920.[6] says that some sequences of Way Down East were filmed in an early Technicolor process.[3]

Clarine Seymour had appeared in four previous Griffith films, and was hired to play Kate, the squire's niece. However, her role was given to Mary Hay, and Seymour's footage reshot, when Seymour died after surgery.

The ice flow sequence was filmed in White River Junction, Vermont. The ice needed to be sawed or dynamited before filming could be done. During filming, a small fire had to be kept burning beneath the camera to keep the oil from freezing. At one point, Griffith's face froze. No stunt doubles were used, so Gish and Barthelmess performed the stunts themselves. Gish's hair froze and she lost feeling in some of her fingers during filming. [7][8]


Similar to other Griffith productions, Way Down East was subjected to censorship by some American state film censor boards. For example, the Pennsylvania film board required over 60 cuts in the film, removing the mock marriage and honeymoon between Lennox and Anna as well as any hints of her pregnancy.[9] The resulting film may have surprised viewers in that state when a child suddenly appears shortly before its death. Other cuts removed scenes where society women smoked cigarettes and an intertitle with the euphemism "wild oats."[9]

Critical reception

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in the film

When the film was screened in 1994 in [10]

Critic Paul Brenner noted, "Many of Griffith’s features suffer from sententious moralizing, a sense of God speaking to the masses, and outright racism. But Way Down East highlights the greatness of Griffith without having to sit through the Sermon on the Mount or the Ride of The Klan. In Way Down East, Griffith’s psychotic nuttiness, for once, didn’t get in the way of a good film."[5]

Critic Dennis Schwartz gave Gish credit in his review, but otherwise dismissed the film, writing, "Credit the strong emotional performances of the diminutive Lillian Gish, the silent screen's shining star, as the wronged innocent country bumpkin with saving the day. Nevertheless, this old-fashioned bucolic soap opera doesn't translate well to modern-times. It's quintessential Griffith melodrama, a mix of opposing forces between those favoring Bible morality and the wealthy hedonists who mock God with their amorality, but the corn grows too high this time around and it has an irritating moralistic Bible flavor in supporting monogamy...The climax delivers a happy ending. It has the angry Squire Bartlett finding out about Anna's baby without a husband and he kicks the supposedly loose woman out in the middle of a winter blizzard. Anna's trapped on a slab of the river's ice floe heading over a waterfall, only to be rescued by a concerned David. The film's most exciting scene was made without any special effects, and is the only thing about the film worth remembering."[11]


  1. ^ "Film World".  
  2. ^ Way Down East at the Internet Movie Database.
  3. ^ a b at SilentEra.comWay Down East
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Brenner, Paul. FilmCritic, film review, 2007. Last accessed: February 24, 2008.
  6. ^ Dirks, Tim. The Greatest Films, film review, 1996-2008. Last accessed: February 24, 2008.
  7. ^ James L. Neibaur (2012). "Way Down East (Web Exclusive)". Cineaste Magazine. Retrieved 4 June 2014. 
  8. ^ "Making Movies, 1920". EyeWitness to History. 2002. Retrieved 4 June 2014. 
  9. ^ a b Smith, Frederick James (Oct 1922). "Foolish Censors".  
  10. ^ Adamo, Mark (July 18, 1994). "Way Down East". Film Review (Washington Post). Retrieved September 3, 2013. 
  11. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, May 27, 2007. Last accessed: February 24, 2008.

External links

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