Film / Way Down East

"This man, an honored guest at your table, why don't you find out what HIS life has been?"

Way Down East is a 1920 Tearjerker Melodrama film, directed by D.W. Griffith and starring Lillian Gish. It was adapted from a popular 1890s stage play by Lottie Parker.

Anna Moore (Gish) is a simple country girl who lives with her mother. They are dirt poor, so she goes to the city to ask her wealthy relatives, the Tremonts, for help. After arriving there she meets Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a rich playboy and cad who sets his sights on Anna as a conquest. Anna is a virgin, though, so Lennox resorts to arranging a fake marriage in order to get Anna to go to bed with him. He stashes her away in the country and uses her as an occasional booty call until she tells him she's pregnant. Lennox then reveals that the marriage was a sham, and leaves Anna forever.

Things go from bad to worse when Anna's mother dies, which casts her adrift. The baby she conceived with Lennox also dies, right after it's born. A desperate Anna wanders to the country farm of Squire Bartlett, where she gets a job as a domestic and a place to belong. She also attracts the attention of the Squire's handsome son David, played Richard Barthelmess, who had previously costarred with Gish in Broken Blossoms. Unfortunately it turns out that Lennox Sanderson owns the property next to the Bartlett farm. And there are others who know Anna's secret.

Even in 1920, Way Down East was old-fashioned and hokey, based on a play that dated back to the Victorian era. Yet the film is buoyed by Griffith's utterly sincere direction and Gish's fearless performance. It is best known for the memorable climax in which Anna, who has been cast out of the Bartlett home, stumbles out into a raging winter storm, finally falling down on an ice floe in the river. The ice then floats downstream to the falls, while David jumps from ice floe to ice floe, racing to save Anna. Except for one shot (the one at the edge of the falls), this climactic sequence was shot in a real storm, in brutal cold. Lillian Gish really had icicles forming on her face. She suffered permanent nerve damage in her hand from dangling it in the freezing river as she lay on the ice floe.

A sound remake was produced in 1935, with a young Henry Fonda in the cast.


  • Arranged Marriage / Kissing Cousins: The Squire wants David to marry pretty Kate, the Squire's niece. Neither David nore Kate is too interested in this.
  • Bed Trick: A variant—Lennox so badly wants to get into Anna's pants that he arranges a fake marriage, complete with fake priest, just so he can have sex with her.
  • Big Damn Hero: David, when he leaps around the ice floes and snatches up Anna right before she goes over the falls.
  • Country Mouse: Anna is way out of her depth in the big city, which leaves her vulnerable to Lennox.
  • Dances and Balls: Anna meets Lennox when the Tremonts give a fancy dress ball.
  • Defiled Forever: Anna believes this about herself, telling David she can never be a wife.
  • Double Standard: Discussed Trope, when Lennox says to Anna that a man is expected to "sow his wild oats", while she has to keep quiet forever to avoid the shame.
  • Down on the Farm: Squire Bennett's farm. Anna gets a job there as a domestic.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Anna certainly goes through a lot before finding her happy ending with David.
  • Foreshadowing: A shot of the river and the falls in summer, then later a comment about how the ice on the river is about to break loose.
  • Idle Rich: Lennox lives off his father's money.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: While Anna believes she has been Defiled Forever, she is actually this, even after her encounter with Lennox.
  • Moral Guardians:
    • The bitchy landlady who throws Anna out of her rooming house for giving birth without benefit of a husband.
    • The town gossip, who learns Anna's secret from the bitchy landlady and rushes to tell Squire Bartlett.
    • And finally Squire Bartlett, who reacts to the news by being a huge dick and kicking Anna out of the house.
  • Pair the Spares: With two pairs of spares. Kate marries the nerdy professor who stays at the farm when he's doing wildlife research, and the crotchety old spinster marries the hillbilly that's been chasing her for twenty years.
  • Psychic Link: David hasn't even met Anna yet, but he wakes up roughly from a dream at the moment of Anna's fake wedding.
  • Really Gets Around: Lennox is a fairly rare male example of this trope, as the film takes a distinctly disapproving view of men cheating on women.
  • Wedding Day: Three couples get married at once at the end of the film.
  • Whole Plot Reference: The movie was based off an old play, which means that it must have been the play that ripped off Tess Of The Durbervilles (and gave it a Happy Ending).