“Don’t worry; everything’s all right. Don’t you trust me?”
A naive country girl (Lillian Gish) is deceived by a womanizing player (Lowell Sherman) into believing she’s married him, and bears a child out of wedlock. After the baby dies and Sherman abandons her, she starts her life over by working as a maid for a squire (Burr McIntosh), whose son (Richard Barthelmess) falls in love with her. But can she escape her “shameful” past?
Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that D.W. Griffith’s adaptation of Lottie Blair Parker’s popular 19th century melodrama remains “the best of [his] pastoral films”, noting that rather than relishing “the chance to make a woman suffer, [he] doesn’t try to milk the audience’s tears”, and makes Gish’s Anna “resilient in her many hardships” so that we “want to admire Anna, not pity her”. Despite Gish’s fine central performance, however — and the justifiably famous finale in which “the freezing Gish walks perilously across ice floes during a blizzard” (using no stunt doubles) — Way Down East remains more of a curiosity than a true classic. There’s nothing particularly new about the heartbreaking storyline (one contributor on IMDb points out the uncanny narrative similarities with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles), and Griffith’s portrayal of country yokels as foolish rubes quickly moves beyond “humor” into tiresome and offensive caricature. With that said, film fanatics will probably be curious to check this one out simply given its historical relevance; it was Griffith’s second most popular film after The Birth of the Nation.
Note: Another contributor on IMDb notes that she’s shown this film to her high school students for years as an archetypical example of Victorian melodrama — which makes complete sense.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Lillian Gish as Anna
- An occasionally heart-breakingly melodramatic script
- G.W. Bitzer’s cinematography
- The exciting icy climax
Yes, but only for its historical relevance.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)